Dortmund's re-emergence among Champions League group stage's highlights

With the Champions League group stage at its midway point, Michael Cox dives into what's left to play for and what's most intriguing about European nights under the floodlights before the knockout rounds begin.

Are Dortmund really this good?

There's little doubt about the most impressive side from this season's Champions League so far. Borussia Dortmund started slowly, with a 1-0 victory over Club Brugge courtesy of a late Christian Pulisic goal, but then they thrashed Monaco 3-0 before recording an incredible 4-0 win over Atletico Madrid.

That 4-0 win over Diego Simeone's side was a statement performance that put Dortmund among the favourites for this competition, and has helped to banish the memories of their disastrous performance last year, when they managed just two points. Defeated home and away by both Real Madrid and Tottenham, Dortmund also managed just two draws against Cypriot champions APOEL.

This time around, they've had no such problems. Combined with their performance in the Bundesliga, where they're four points clear at the top, Dortmund are on fire.

There is, however, one major contrast from their domestic performances. In the Bundesliga, Dortmund are conceding at a rate of a goal per game, not helped by some serious injury problems at the back, whereas in European competition they've kept three clean sheets from three games. It feels like their European record is the anomaly, and Dortmund's aggressive style exposes the defence too readily, but the attacking section of the side provides enough goal-scoring power to compensate.

Among the hype around Jadon Sancho, the young Englishman whose brilliant performances as a super-sub have compelled Lucien Favre to start him, and Spanish striker Paco Alcacer's great scoring rate, it's a relative veteran who has been most impressive this season. Marco Reus now captains the side and provides speed, intelligent movement and calmness in front of goal. A survivor from Dortmund's run to the final in 2012-13, Reus has praised the tactical awareness of Favre, who changes his side's approach every game without losing cohesion.

And, more than anything, this feels like a proper team. Dortmund's eight Champions League goals have been scored by seven players, with only Raphael Guerreiro -- who has made just one appearance, as a substitute -- registering more than once. This is a dynamic, unpredictable, fast-paced side. In terms of both style and results, it's good to have a proper Dortmund side back challenging for Europe's ultimate prize.

Will Lyon continue to outperform the their French rivals?

France triumphed at World Cup 2018, but whereas Spanish and German success in 2010 and 2014 was mirrored by fine European performances by Barcelona and Bayern Munich respectively, there's little sign that Paris Saint-Germain will win this season's Champions League. Thomas Tuchel's side have been arguably the underachievers thus far.

In stark contrast to their domestic form, where PSG have managed a record-breaking winning start to the campaign -- the streak is now at 12 matches -- Tuchel's side have struggled badly in Europe. They started with a late 3-2 defeat at Liverpool, where the defensive contributions of their all-star front three -- Neymar, Kylian Mbappe and Edinson Cavani -- were negligible, the type of attitude that isn't a problem in Ligue 1, but costs you dearly in Europe.

The 6-1 thrashing of Red Star Belgrade was entirely expected, but then PSG struggled at home to Napoli, only taking a point courtesy of Angel Di Maria's late strike. Were it not for that goal, PSG would have found themselves three points off the top two slots in Group C. With a difficult trip to Naples this week, followed by a home clash with Liverpool, PSG are nevertheless still in serious difficulties.

The performance of Monaco has also been disastrous. After defeats to Dortmund and Atletico, the 1-1 draw with Brugge was even more damning, meaning that Monaco now appear to be fighting the Belgian side for a Europa League place, rather than challenging for the knockout stages. Thierry Henry's appointment hasn't produced any noticeable new manager bounce thus far, and with Monaco's struggles in Ligue 1, you wonder whether Henry even wants to be competing in the Europa League come spring.

That means that Lyon, somewhat surprisingly, are the only side currently on course to qualify for the knockout stage. Their shock 2-1 victory over Manchester City in the opening game underlined Lyon's counter-attacking ability, while the comeback to draw 2-2 with Shakhtar Donetsk proved their fighting spirit and a bonkers 3-3 with Hoffenheim confirmed their status as among the most exciting teams in the competition.

With seven goals from seven different scorers, and the likes of Nabil Fekir, Memphis Depay and Bertrand Traore all shining in the attacking third, it's harsh to highlight simply one star performer. But Tanguy Ndombele has been outstanding in his box-to-box midfield role, storming forward to provide flicks, tricks and goal-scoring potential.

A victory against Hoffenheim this weekend would almost guarantee progression to the knockout phase. For a club who have seen their women's side win the Champions League three times in a row, it's about time the men upped their game.

Have Ajax returned as a serious force?

It's tough to find many football followers -- aside from supporters of rival Dutch clubs -- who don't have a soft spot for Ajax. Arguably the most influential club in the tactical development of football, thanks to their Total Football in the 1970s and their free-flowing attacking play of the 1990s, their recent struggles to compete in European football have been a sad reflection of the smaller leagues' inability to compete with the big boys.

Last season was a new low. Ajax were eliminated from both the Champions League and the Europa League qualifying process, meaning the club were out of European competition by the time the group stage draw was made in late August. It's been a difficult decade for Ajax in Europe. They might still be considered one of the continent's major names, but Ajax haven't actually reached the knockout stage of the Champions League since 2005-06.

Now they are, at least partly, back. Ajax dispatched AEK Athens 3-0 with few problems in the first group game, before Noussair Mazraoui's goal won an impressive point away at Bayern Munich, and the same player scored a late, deflected winner for the only goal at home to Benfica. Ajax are now in fine position in Group E -- a point in this week's return match in Lisbon would be a good result -- and dreaming of their first Champions League game after Christmas in 13 years.

Ajax's most impressive performers have been at the back. Mazraoui has got up and down the touchline well and contributed two key goals, while left-back Nicolas Tagliafico managed two against AEK. Between them, 19-year-old Matthijs de Ligt and 21-year-old Frenkie de Jong are arguably the two most coveted young centre-backs in Europe, both capable of bringing the ball forward from the back in the classic Ajax tradition, while Daley Blind has returned to provide yet more tactical intelligence from deep.

Much like with Dortmund's fine start to the European campaign, Ajax's wins feel more significant because of the style; it's not just the return of Ajax as a winning force, but the return of Ajax as a footballing identity.