With the groups for 2010/11 now drawn and this season’s edition set to kick off next week I turn from Mexico back to Europe. Since its inauguration in 1992 the Champions League has retained all the prestige of the European Cup while adding a lot of money to the continent’s premiere competition. It has also, somewhat paradoxically, included teams that were not Champions of their domestic league. Far from weakening the competition it has enhanced it with more clubs from Europe’s strongest leagues going head to head. It is a showcase for the world’s best players and it is the club competition that everybody wants to win. The Champions League has led to some almighty match ups at all stages of the competition as we will see below. As for the English bias (7 of my 10 involve an English club) it is safe to say that English teams have dominated the last decade of the competition and it is nothing compared to the Barcelona dominance!
10. Arsenal vs Barcelona – Quarter Final 1st Leg – 2009/10
Arguably the two most attractive football teams were drawn together in last season’s Champions League, the neutrals hoped for glorious pass and move football between two teams not afraid to attack and they got just that. The first leg and the Emirates began with 20 minutes of football mastery from Barcelona. Arsenal simply couldn’t touch Xavi and Busquets as they enjoyed 76% of possession to make chance after chance for Ibrahimovic. The Swede had been in awful goalscoring form in 2010 but he eventually capitalised with two goals just after half time. There seemed no way back for Arsenal and as one last roll of the dice (Arsenal had already used up two substitutions in the first half due to injury) Wenger threw on Theo Walcott. Three minutes later the England winger had halved the deficit and Arsenal had found their confidence. They pressed and attacked and risked conceding on the counter but it paid off in the 86th minute when Puyol in his usual no-nonsense manner broke Fabregas’ leg with a clumsy challenge. Undeterred the Arsenal captain brushed himself off and spanked the ball home then had to limp through the last painful minutes (he didn’t play again that season). An incredible game to watch between two teams who refused to park the bus.
9. Newcastle vs Barcelona – Group Stage – 1997/98
Newcastle’s first ever match in the Champions League proper was at St. James’ Park against Cup Winner’s Cup holders Barcelona. It will be remembered fondly by the Toon Army as a famous victory thanks to a hat trick from the mercurial man from Tuluá. Faustino Asprilla gave a early warning to Barcelona, winning the ball back of Nadal before a he slipped passed one defender and jinking past another to win a free kick just outside the box. He went one better later in the 1st half, latching onto a John Dahl Tomasson pass only to be brought down by the goalkeeper. He duly dispatched the penalty and moments later doubled their lead with a thundering header from Kieth Gillespie’s cross. In the second half Gillespie went on a brilliant run before sending in another great cross for Tino who hung in the air to meet the ball perfectly and seal his hat trick. At the time the only other player to score a hat trick on Champions League debut was the great Marco van Basten. A late rally from Barcelona made the game exciting, but it is Tino who deserves the plaudits for this match.
8. Manchester Utd vs Porto – Last 16 2nd leg – 2003/04
From team performances to individual player performances now to a manager. José Mourinho looked forward to this game with relish, for the holder of the UEFA Cup looking to challenge himself at the highest level this was the perfect test. Manchester United had cruised through the group stage and after 14 minutes of the 1st leg were 1-0 up away from home. Porto staged a comeback to win 2-1 but come the 2nd leg at Old Trafford the Red Devils once again took an early lead, Paul Scholes the scorer. With United due to go through on away goals, the Portuguese champions continued to press until the final minute, it was in that minute that Costinha followed up a McCarthy free kick to send Porto through. The game itself was not as high a quality as the others featured in the list but it held great significance. This game announced Mourinho to the world – he would go on to win the Champions League that season and then haunt Ferguson once more at Chelsea. He is now considered one of the best managers in the world and at Real Madrid is hunting an unprecedented third Champions League with his third club. But this reminds us that it all started with that infamous sprint down the Old Trafford touchline.
7. Barcelona vs CSKA Moscow – First Round 2nd leg – 1992/93
The first major upset in the Champions League came in this match. In the opening leg at Moscow’s Lenin Central Stadium the Catalan giants and European Cup holders earned a credible 1-1 draw thanks to a 2nd half equaliser from diminutive winger Begiristain. Begiristain was on the score sheet again in the 2nd leg as Barcelona raced to a 2-0 lead (3-0 on aggregate). Bushmanov gave the Russians a glimpse of hope with a goal just before half time but it seemed little more than that. Maybe it was the vodka in the half-time tea (unconfirmed) but something sparked CSKA into life. Mashkarin and Kasarov notched up another two goals in quick succession (57 and 61 mins respectively) to condemn Barcelona to their first European Cup defeat at the Nou Camp for seven years.
6. Manchester United vs Barcelona – Group Stage – 1998/99
This game had goals, scintillating individual displays and was a true clash of two top attacking sides. The first half belonged to Beckham and Manchester United. The midfielder gave blaugrana left-back Sergi a torrid time. For the first goal Beckham beat him for pace and whipped in a cross to the far post that was met with a glorious header from Ryan Giggs his opposite winger. For the second goal Beckham used his left foot to find Dwight Yorke who saw his overhead kick saved by Barcelona goalkeeper Hesp before Scholes followed up. In the 2nd half Rivaldo stole the show, tricking and dancing his way through the defence to set up Sonny Anderson, then winning the penalty converted by Geovanni (yes the same Geovanni who now plays for San Jose Earthquakes). Beckham still had something to say and put United 3-2 ahead with a trademark freekick. Luis Enrique got the last word with a bundled equaliser in a game that one never thought would be repeated – except the teams finished 3-3 the next month as well!
5. Deportivo vs AC Milan- Quarter Final 2nd leg – 2003/04
In the first leg Milan had trounced their Spanish counterparts 4-1, despite Pandiani opening the scoring at the San Siro. That goal proved to be all-important as Deportivo staged one of the best comebacks in recent times to overhaul the deficit and progress 5-4 on aggregate. It was Pandiani again who opened the scoring again in La Coruña with a clever turn and shot after just five minutes. Valerón with a header and Luque with a burst of pace and emphatic finish put the La Liga side 3-0 up at the break and ahead on away goals. Milan for all their attacking talent couldn’t find a goal in the second half. 15 minutes from time Fran made it four with a deflected half volley and Milan simply had to score to take the game into extra time. Rui Costa thought he had done just that when he thundered a shot goalwards in the 81st minute only for Molina to produce a fantastic save. Depor held on for what is remembered as the “Remontada en Riazor”.
4. Chelsea vs Barcelona – Last 16 2nd leg – 2004/05
Chelsea were beaten 2-1 in the Nou Camp and had a tough task on their hands to defeat a team containing the world’s best player at the time, Ronaldinho. Mourinho reverted to the tactics that had seen him gain success at Porto (see above) as Chelsea stormed out the blocks and attacked from the start. They sprinted to a 3-0 lead within 20 minutes with goals from Gudjohnsen, Lampard and Duff. Barcelona finally managed to respond and won a penalty in the 27th minute which Ronaldinho scored to put them one goal from going through. On 38 minutes the Brazilian produced one of his typical moments of genius as he dazzled everybody with his hips before knocking the ball nonchalantly past Cech. It was a pulse-racing 45 minutes that saw the pendulum swing in Chelsea’s favour then back to Barcelona. A similar second half followed with Cech producing a world-class save from Puyol and tipping a shot from a 17-year old Argentinean wizard onto the post. Chelsea had their chances too and eventually prospered from a set play proving they could be both fluid and organised. Fittingly the goal came from captain John Terry and come final whistle Mourinho was dancing on the pitch again.
3. AC Milan vs Barcelona – Final – 1993/94
Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona were undoubtedly the top team in Europe at the time, they had just wrapped up another La Liga title with Brazilian striker Romario in devastating form scoring 30 goals in 33 league games. Milan on the other hand were decimated by injury (Van Basten), suspension (captain Baresi and Costacurta) and bureaurcracy (UEFA’s cap on foreign players meant Florin Răducioiu, Jean-Pierre Papin and Brian Laudrup all missed out). So it was no surprise that one team dominated and won 4-0, it was a big surprise that the name on the trophy was AC Milan’s! Veteran Italian striker Daniele Massaro scored two goals in the first half but I always remember the last two goals most vividly. Dejan Savicevic’s lob was exquisite and Marcel Desailly’s goal simply confirmed that this remains the most complete final performance by any team in the competition’s history (also the largest margin of victory in a final in the Champions League era).
2. Manchester Utd vs Bayern Munich – 1998/99 – Final
As we’ve just seen above, finals are not always tight, scrappy affairs between two teams afraid to attack. This final was just that for long periods. Bayern Munich scored early on through a Basler freekick and a Man Utd team were feeling the loss of their suspended captain Roy Keane and midfield lynchpin Paul Scholes, as Mario Basler dominated the game. It should have been out of United’s reach by the 75th minute had it not been for Schmeichel’s save from Stefan Effenberg. Bayern Munich also hit the woodwork twice with Jancker and Mehmet Scholl. In the end it was three substitutions (2 for Utd, 1 for Bayern) that made the telling contributions. A Beckham corner wasn’t cleared properly by Torsten Fink (who had come on for Lothar Matthaus) and Ryan Giggs’ shot was turned in by Teddy Sheringham (United’s first substitute) in the 91st minute. Bayern hearts broken they prepared themselves for extra time, but a minute later they were defending another Beckham corner. This time Sheringham headed the ball down to Solskjaer (United’s other substitute) who poked the ball home. The significance was vast, United became the first English team to win the Champions League (or European Cup) since the Heysel ban and earned them the first treble in English football history (first in European football since Hiddink’s PSV in 1988). It was the comeback of all comebacks…for six years at least.
1. Liverpool vs AC Milan – Final – 2004/05
It is the stuff of folklore, at half time Liverpool trudged into the dressing room 3-0 down having been badly outplayed. Maldini became the oldest player to score in a Champions League Final before Hernan Crespo finished off two wonderful moves. I’ve heard numerous stories of Reds fans who threw their TV out of the window, left the pub (or were thrown out) as they contemplated an embarrassing end to an extraordinary European campaign. Instead players like Djimi Traoré, Harry Kewell, Vladimir Smicer and Luis Garcia got their hands on the biggest prize in World football. Their comeback was driven by one Steven Gerrard who started a six-minute whirlwind with a header on 54 minutes. Two minutes later Vladimir Smicer drilled a shot into the bottom corner before Gerrard was brought down by Gattuso. Xabi Alonso missed the penalty…but scored the rebound and somehow Liverpool were back in with a chance. In extra time Dudek pulled off a brilliant double save from Shevchenko to take the game to penalties. Dudek was the hero again saving from Pirlo and Shevchenko to hand Liverpool the unlikliest of victories.
You can thank me later Chelsea fans…………for not including Iniesta’s last-minute equaliser/aggregate winner that sent them through in 2008/09. Although it rates as one of the most dramatic moments in the Champions League it was somewhat tarnished by the horrendous refereeing. The same goes for the Liverpool vs Chelsea semi-final in 2004/05 which saw the goal that never was.
On Friday we will look at the Top Ten players currently playing in the Argentinean League. Thoughts and comments appreciated below as always.