The UEFA European Cup has been the most prestigious club continental competition ever since its inaugural edition in 1955/56. The best teams on the continent have been battling it out for bragging rights for more than half a century (almost 70 years), but only 22 teams managed to write history by claiming the silverware every football squad on the continent is dreaming of.
The tournament has seen plenty of changes over the course of history in terms of the format and even the name. We know it as the UEFA Champions League since the 1992/93 season when Olympique Marseille saw off Milan 1-0 at Olympiastadion in Munich.
Initially, the competition was open to the champions of the national leagues exclusively. As of 1997, the runners-up were also allowed to take part, while the reigning champions were automatically qualified only after Liverpool’s historical win over Milan in 2005 in Istanbul. To find more detailed information on the Champions League click here.
Real Madrid are by far the most successful team in the history of the competition. They have won it as many as 13 times, including each of the opening five editions (from 1955/196 to 1959/1960). Milan clinched seven trophies, Liverpool grabbed their sixth with a 2-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in 2019, while Bayern Munich and Barcelona sit at five silverwares. Clubs from ten distinct countries have won the Champions League, but the winners came from just four nations since the 1996/97 campaign (Spain, England, Italy, and Germany). The exception is Porto’s victory over Monaco in the 2003/04 season.
We decided to recall the most iconic finals we have witnessed since we know the competition as UEFA Champions League (1992/93).
Borussia Dortmund v Juventus – 1996/97
We will start off with one of the biggest shocks in the history of the competition. Juventus, the reigning champions, entered the game as heavy favourites after storming past Ajax 6-2 on aggregate (semi-final) in the replay of the final from the previous year when they won the crown on penalties. Dortmund, on the other side, advanced to their inaugural final following back-to-back narrow wins over Manchester United (1-0 home and away each) in the semis.
The holders kept the core of the winning squad and had a star-studded line-up featuring the likes of Didier Deschamps, Zinedine Zidane, Christian Vieri, and Alessandro Del Piero among others. Nevertheless, Europe’s finest team at that time was stifled by a fabulous display from Borussia who dominated the centre of the park. Scottish midfielder Paul Lambert thwarted Zinedine Zidane killing Juve’s creativity on the evening.
Karl-Heinz Riedle stunned the Italians with a first-half brace. Legendary Italian manager Marcelo Lippi introduced Del Piero for right-back Sergio Porrini at half time and his joker responded by pulling one back 20 minutes after the break for the defending champions.
Nevertheless, Dortmund’s 20-year-old substitute Lars Ricken had something to say himself as he chipped Angelo Peruzzi with his maiden touch of the ball 16 seconds upon replacing Swiss striker Stephane Chapuisat. It was a moment Dortmund’s local boy will never forget. BVB made it to the final of the competition in the 2012/13 campaign as well but were unlucky to lose 2-1 to Bayern Munich in an all-German clash at Wembley.
Chelsea v Bayern Munich – 2011/12
We will stick to upsets and go to the 2011/12 final at Allianz-Arena. Bayern Munich played host to Chelsea who had an interim manager Roberto Di Matteo at the helm. The Bavarians have stormed past Basel and Marseille before eliminating mighty Real Madrid in the semi-final. Everyone but Chelsea’s 18-man squad expected a one-way street for the German heavyweights.
It was a pretty much one-sided affair indeed, but Bayern Munich failed to convert even though Arjen Robben (the former Blue) and Franck Ribery terrorized Chelsea’s defence all the way. When Thomas Muller finally broke the deadlock seven minutes from time, it seemed the story was all over for the Londoners.
However, one man from Ivory Coast had some unfinished job four years after he was sent off in the final his team lost to Manchester United on penalties. Didier Drogba pulled off the most significant jump of his career to head the ball into the back of the net and bring the Blues back on terms with the very last kick of the game.
There were no goals in the extra-time and penalty shoot-out were to decide the winners. There, Petr Cech confirmed his class, Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger made mistakes, and Didier Drogba became Chelsea’s legend by converting the ultimate penalty.
Manchester United v Bayern Munich – 1998/1999
We come to one of the most shocking moments of football history. Bayern Munich and Manchester United were chasing trebles each as they have both secured domestic titles in their leagues and cups respectively. They featured the same group and drew on both occasions in 1008.
The Bavarians entered the clash of the titans as slight favourites given United were without influential midfield duo Paul Scholes and Roy Keane. Der FCB took advantage and dominated the centre of the park. They seized control thanks to Mario Basler’s free-kick early on. Ottmar Hitzfeld’s men missed several fantastic chances, including Carsten Jancker’s bar from the overhead kick. The Red Devils seemed lost and powerless even after Sir Alex Ferguson threw Teddy Sheringham and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer in.
And then we come to the injury time. The fourth official showed three more minutes are to be played. The Red Devils won a corner. Peter Schmeichel went all the way to Bayern’s penalty box. The fans knew only a miracle can save the most successful English team.
David Beckham took the corner, Dwight Yorke headed it towards the centre of the area, substitute Thorsten Fink failed to clear the danger, the ball came to Ryan Giggs whose attempt of a shot was terrible. Nonetheless, the ball somehow came straight to Teddy Sheringham who turned it into the bottom corner of the net. United were level, United were rescued.
The Red Devils were still celebrating the fact they forced the extra-time. They won another corner 30 seconds after. Schmeichel stayed in front of his goal this time. Beckham once again swung it in, this time on Sheringham’s head. The golden substitute headed the ball across the face of goal. Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer was quickest to react and send the ball behind Oliver Kahn to complete one of the greatest and most shocking comebacks in football history.
Liverpool v Milan – 2004/05
Even though it was very hard to beat the above-described Manchester’s comeback against the German giants, Liverpool’s 2005 title had to take the No 1 spot on our list. The Reds had a three-goal deficit at the half time against one of the best teams in the competition’s history. To show whom the English team were against, here is how Milan’s starting XI looked like that evening in Istanbul:
Dida – Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini – Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf – Kaka – Crespo, Shevchenko
Imagine going 0-3 against such a deadly squad that has featured the best defenders in the world (Stam, Nesta, Maldini), miraculous creators (Pirlo, Seedorf, Kaka), and lethal strikers (Crespo, Shevchenko), each at their primes.
What Rafael Benitez told his players during the half-time talk in the dressing room is a mystery, but hell it did the job. Steven Gerrard is Anfield legend for a reason, not just for what he has done after the break on that night in Istanbul. One of the greatest headers football has ever seen found a place at the top corner of Dida’s net nine minutes into the second half.
The gap was cut down to just one goal only two minutes later when substitute Vladimir Smicer (came in for injured Harry Kewell midway through the first half) fired it from outside the box. The Reds needed no more than four minutes to find the shocking leveller. Gerrard won a penalty, Xabi Alonso was denied by Dida, but was lucky enough to get the rebound and turn it into the net.
Rossoneri recovered in extra-time, dominated the pitch, but had an inspiring Jerzy Dudek against them. The Polish keeper made an amazing double save on Andriy Shevchenko to send the game to the penalty shoot-out. Dudek took advantage of the momentum, denied the magnificent Ukrainian once again, this time from the spot, and Liverpool claimed the trophy in what was probably the most iconic football affair the world has ever seen.