The Champions League is back, rather swiftly after delayed end to last season with Bayern Munich’s dominant triumph, but with no less intrigue. The stage that often witnesses the highest quality of football in the world returns with a fresh campaign that has its own plots and subplots.

Over the years, the Uefa Champions League has proven to be the ultimate test of a footballer’s credentials. It truly separates the good from the great and the great from the greatest.

Messi and Ronaldo’s playground

However, in the las ten years, the competition has been dominated by two and only two men. Those two men raised the bar high and miraculously bettered it with every passing season.

In all fairness, the Champions League through the past decade has been a playground for Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, firm contenders for the greatest footballer of all time tag. It was in playing this competition that they reached this pedestal and few players have dominated the competition like these two players have.

Ronaldo and Messi are the Champions League’s top two all-time leading goalscorers.

Champions League all-time leading goalscorers

Rank Player Goals Apps Ratio Years Club(s) (Goals)
1 Cristiano Ronaldo 130 170 0.76 2003–Present Manchester United (15), Real Madrid (105), Juventus (10)
2  Lionel Messi 115 143 0.8 2005–Prsent Barcelona
3  Raúl 71 142 0.50 1995–2011 Real Madrid (66), Schalke 04 (5)
4 Robert Lewandowski 68 90 0.76 2011–Present Borussia Dortmund (17), Bayern Munich (51)
5 Karim Benzema 65 120 0.54 2006–Present Lyon (12), Real Madrid (53)
6 Ruud van Nistelrooy 56 73 0.77 1998–2009 PSV Eindhoven (8), Manchester United (35), Real Madrid (13)
7 Thierry Henry 50 112 0.45 1997–2012 Monaco (7), Arsenal (35), Barcelona (8)
8 Alfredo Di Stéfano  49 58 0.84 1955–1964 Real Madrid
9 Andriy Shevchenko 48 100 0.48 1994–2012 Dynamo Kyiv (15), Milan (29), Chelsea (4)

One of either Messi or Ronaldo have been top scorers in 13 different Champions Leagues seasons

List of most successful UCL golden boot winners

Player Titles Seasons
 Cristiano Ronaldo 7 2007–08, 2012–13, 2013–14, 2014–15, 2015–16, 2016–17, 2017–18
 Lionel Messi 6 2008–09, 2009–10, 2010–11, 2011–12, 2014–15, 2018–19
 Gerd Müller 4 1972–73, 1973–74, 1974–75, 1976–77
 Eusébio 3 1964–65, 1965–66, 1967–68
 Jean-Pierre Papin 3 1989–90, 1990–91, 1991–92
 Ruud van Nistelrooy 3 2001–02, 2002–03, 2004–05
 Ferenc Puskás 2 1959–60, 1963–64
 Torbjörn Nilsson 2 1984–85, 1985–86
 Raúl 2 1999–2000, 2000–01
 Andriy Shevchenko 2 1998–99, 2005–06

However that changed in the 2019-’20 season. For the first time in 13 years, a player apart from these two was the competition’s top scorer. The honour fell to Bayern’s Robert Lewandowski who had silently been scoring loads of goals in the shadow of the two greats.

List of UCL top scorers

Season Top scorer Club Number of goals
2007–08  Cristiano Ronaldo  Manchester United 8
2008–09  Lionel Messi  Barcelona 9
2009–10  Lionel Messi  Barcelona 8
2010–11  Lionel Messi  Barcelona 12
2011–12  Lionel Messi  Barcelona 14
2012–13  Cristiano Ronaldo  Real Madrid 12
2013–14  Cristiano Ronaldo  Real Madrid 17
2014–15  Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar  Barcelona 10
2015–16  Cristiano Ronaldo  Real Madrid 16
2016–17  Cristiano Ronaldo  Real Madrid 12
2017–18  Cristiano Ronaldo  Real Madrid 15
2018–19  Lionel Messi  Barcelona 12
2019–20  Robert Lewandowski  Bayern Munich 15

The 2019-’20 campaign was also the first time in 12 years when neither Messi nor Ronaldo appeared in the semi-finals of the Champions League. In eight out of those 12 seasons, either Messi or Ronaldo guided their teams to the title.

A change of guard?

The previous season may well be an indication that the dominance of these two greats, who are now slowly inching towards the wrong side of their thirties, could be coming to an end.

There is no player right now who comes close to matching the sheer brilliance of Ronaldo and Messi in their prime, but there are a few youngsters who have been knocking on the door lately. Last season’s final between Bayern Munich and Paris-Saint Germain saw this and had a message in the absence of the big names.

In the Champions League, it’s the best players that always make the difference but it’s a competition where just the best team doesn’t win. You have to be the best team with the best players to succeed, a fact that Messi and Ronaldo have highlighted in the past decade.

The Portuguese striker has failed to go beyond the quarter-final since moving to Juventus in 2018, while Messi’s Barcelona have reached only one semi-final since last lifting the trophy in 2015.

So after years of dominance will the 2020-’21 campaign signal a change of guard?

PSG’s Kylian Mbappe, already a World Cup winner at 21, is perhaps the player most likely to be football’s next mega star. Playing for a well-rounded PSG side, Mbappe has loads of talent and has already racked up 125 goals in 200 matches of his club career.

The youngster has been criticised for not turning up on the biggest of stages for PSG, but only 21, this could be his season after all. His national team coach Didier Deschamps certainly thinks so.

“What he can do at such a young age is not normal. You can’t put him in any category. A player like him only appears occasionally. I’m privileged because he’s French and he plays with us. There are a lot of Kylians, but only one Kylian Mbappe.”  

— Didier Deschamps on Kylian Mbappe

Then there is Dortmund’s Erling Braut Haaland who took the competition by storm scoring ten goals despite playing only till the Round of 16 stage. He was unstoppable in the group stage and deserves even more credit as he played for a team like Red Bull Salzburg who are no big hitters in the Champions League.

Switching to Dortmund in January, Haaland scored a brace in their 2-1 win over PSG in the Round of 16 first leg but the Germans went out after defeat in the second leg. Featuring for Dortmund from the outset this time around, Haaland is expected to be among the goals again.

Bayern Munich’s Serge Gnabry was the find of the Champions League last season, scoring nine goals. Rejected by Arsenal, the German found his feet at Bayern and played a pivotal run in their title triumph. Still 25, Gnabry is about to hit his peak and if he keeps on improving at the rate he did in the last two seasons, he could help Bayern dominate Europe just like Messi and Ronaldo did for their sides.

His teammate Robert Lewandowski was last season’s Europe player of the year. At 32, he may have just crossed his peak and may not reach the level to match the greatness of Ronaldo and Messi, but any improvement on his 15 goals last season would go a long way in helping Bayern Munich defend their crown.

Neymar, the original heir to Ronaldo and Messi, lost his way after moving to PSG primarily to move out of the shadow of the duo in La Liga. Poor performances, discipline issues and injuries derailed his career in France. However, he was back to his best last season in PSG’s run to the final. Still 28, we might just be about to enter the Neymar era.

While several players are primed to take over the mantle from Messi and Ronaldo as football’s alpha superstars, it would be foolish to rule out the two greats just yet. They have made a career out of doing the impossible and knowing their incessant desire for excellence, both Messi and Ronaldo will be determined to prove that last season was just a blip.

Neither Messi’s Barcelona nor Ronaldo’s Juventus are being tipped as prime contenders for the Champions League title this season, perhaps in expectation of a change of guard. But only time will tell whether it is a premature assumption or a well-forecast prediction.