On Saturday night the players of Atletico and Real Madrid will have an opportunity to etch their names into the pantheon of greats by winning the Champions League. This year’s final is perhaps more historic than most.
Atleti have the chance to get their hands on Europe’s premier club prize for the first time ever, Madrid aim to complete the mythical la Decima, while it is the first time in the history of European club competitions that two teams from the same city have competed in a final. The winners will join the immortals and the losers will soon be wiped from memory. Winning as they say is everything.
Or is it? Over the years, the Champions League has come to be seen as the pinnacle of football. You are either a legend who has won it or a nobody. But a look back across the history of the competition from the time of its inception in 1955, reveals a list of fabled names who have never triumphed in UEFA’s showpiece club tournament.
Therefore, in the lead up to this year’s final, we at Back Page Football thought it would be interesting to draw up two teams; one comprising those players who have won the Champions League or European Cup and one made up of those who sadly don’t possess a winner’s medal and see which of the two would likely emerge victorious. For both teams we have gone for a 4-3-3 formation. A number of positions were fiendishly difficult to decide and for that the individual Champions League records of the respective players were a determining factor. So without further ado here are our selections:
Champions League Winning XI
Goalkeeper – Peter Schmeichel
A key player in the successful Manchester United side of the 90’s, Schmeichel was regarded by many as the best goalkeeper of his generation. His performances in Europe are part of Manchester United lore and he was in important factor in helping Sir Alex Ferguson win his first Champions League title in 1999.
Left-back - Paolo Maldini
No competition here. The greatest left-back of all time helped AC Milan win five European Cups over a career that spanned 25-years. Cool, sophisticated and unflappable Maldini won admirers not only for his football but also the gracefulness of his style.
Right-back - Javier Zanetti
There must be something in Milan’s water. Javier Zanetti who retired this summer was to the right-back position what Maldini was to the left. A consummate professional who like his counterpart played into his forties, Zanetti may go into the history books as the most respected footballer ever. Both tenacious and graceful the Argentine captained Inter to Champions League glory in 2010 for the first time since 1965.
Centre back - Franco Baresi
In 1999 AC Milan retired the No.6 of one Franco Baresi. That same year he was also voted their finest player of the 20th century. A force of nature, Baresi was a leader on the pitch with unmatchable vision. He was the fulcrum of the Milan side that dominated Italian and European football in the late 80’s and early 90’s, and with him at the centre of their defence, the Rossoneri were able to claim three European Cup triumphs, most famously in the 1994 4-0 rout of Barcelona’s dream team.
Centre back - Franz Beckenbauer
Nicknamed Der Kaiser on account of his playing style and majestic leadership, Beckenbauer is generally hailed as Germany’s best ever player. He is certainly one of the most decorated. As the original ball playing defender, Beckenbauer steered Bayern Munich to three European Cup triumphs in a row between 1974-1976 and claimed a Ballon d’Or in the process.
Defensive midfielder - Claude Makelele
He may not have the same numbers of trophies as Frank Rijkaard or Sergio Busquets, but Claude Makelele was as close to a perfect holding midfielder as you could get. So successful was he at doing what he did that his position eventually became known as the “Makelele role”. It is telling that in a side containing the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Raul, Makelele was considered by his Real Madrid team mates as the club’s most important player.
Midfielder - Michael Laudrup
The peerless Dane won league titles with Juventus, Barcelona, Real Madrid and Ajax, yet his crowning glory came in 1991 when he played an integral part in helping Barca win their first European Cup. Considered by most a misfielding greatest, Laudrup’s every touch on the pitch was a veritable work of art. No wonder he is referred to as the playmaker prince.
Midfielder - Xavi Hernandez
The midfield metronome of the greatest of all Barcelona sides, the diminutive product of the club’s youth academy is the finest distributor of the ball the world has ever seen. Whilst never the most prolific of scorers, Xavi is the man who conducts the orchestra. His constant movement and almost career perfect pass-completion rate make him the epicentre of the side.
Attacker - Lionel Messi
A stupendous 67 goals in 86 matches by the “little magician” as British commentators are so fond of calling him, has helped Barcelona win three Champions League crowns. The world’s number one player was the tournament’s top scorer three years in a row from 2009-2011 and netted decisive goals in the Catalan side’s two triumphs against Manchester United. With many years still ahead of him Messi is already a Champions League great.
Attacker – Johan Cruyff
Perhaps the coolest footballer to ever play the game, Cruyff is a legend amongst men. The man who would come to define Total Football showed that attackers need not be just battering rams, but could flourish by playing with fluidity and precision. His Ajax team which won three consecutive European cups is fondly remembered as one of the most glorious and exciting sides to play the game.
Attacker – Alfredo di Stefano
No player has had a bigger impact on world football’s premier club competition than Alfredo Di Stefano. The key component of Real Madrid’s five European Cup victories in the 1950’s, he scored in every one of their final appearances – setting a record that will probably never be beaten. No wonder the likes of Pele and Eusabio have hailed him as the most complete footballer the game has ever seen.
Manager - Brian Clough
Bob Paisley won the competition more times and other managers had far more illustrious careers, but the act of taking provincial Nottingham Forest from 16th place in the old English Second Division to European champions within four years has to rank as one of the most remarkable coaching achievements ever seen. If that wasn’t enough of a fairly tale, Nigel Clough’s Forest only went on and successfully defended their crown in 1980.
Oliver Kahn, Frank de Boer, Giacinto Facchetti, Andres Iniesta, Zinedane Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo, Marco Van Basten.
Champions League Losing XI
Goalkeeper - Gianluigi Buffon
Although there is still time for Italy’s number one to finally get his hands on a Champions League winners medal, so far the honour has evaded him in an otherwise glittering career with club and country. His best chance came in 2002 when Juventus met AC Milan in the final. Unfortunately for Gigi, the Rossoneri emerged victorious on penalties after a drab 0-0 draw.
Left-back - Andreas Brehme
Most of the world’s greatest left-backs have a European Cup triumph on their CV. Paolo Maldini, Roberto Carlos even Ashley Cole can all boast a victory in the competition. The most notable absentee from that list is German stalwart Andreas Brehme, best known for scoring the winning goal in the 1990 World Cup final. Deadly from set pieces, Brehme reached the final in 1987 where his Bayern side were undone by Porto.
Right-back - Lillian Thuram
148 caps for the finest French ever seen are just one indicator of how good Lillian Thuram was. Equally adept at playing in the centre as out wide, the Frenchman enjoyed success every where he went. However, like Buffon he was unable to help Juventus overcome AC Milan in the 2002 final.
Centre Back - Sir Billy Wright
Though Wolverhampton Wanderers never came close to winning it – their best performance being a quarter-final appearance – Sir Billy Wright has to be one of the finest players to have ever graced the competition. Three First Division championships with Wolves, the first player ever to win 100 caps for his country, and not a single booking or red card in 646 matches for club and country tell the story of a remarkable career with or without a European Cup triumph.
Centre back - Fabio Cannavaro
World Player of the Year in 2006 after captaining Italy to the World Cup, Cannavaro enjoyed a career that would be the envy of most. However, despite all his success, Champions League glory alluded him even after appearing in the tournament with Inter, AC Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid.
Defensive midfielder: Lothar Matthaus
Arrogantly brilliant, Lothar Matthaus lead Germany to World Cup success in 1990. The story in the Champions League was very different. Two final defeats with Bayern Munich, most heartbreakingly in 1999 against Manchester Untied meant that the German legend was forever denied the ultimate club trophy.
Defensive midfielder - Patrick Vieira
For this formation we’ve gone for two holding midfielders and there can be no one better than Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira to partner Lothar Matthaus. The player who came to define Arsenal’s success in the late 90s and early 00s was the best player in his position during that time. Despite all his success, he never even reached a semi-final with the North London outfit, but is a more than useful addition in this starting 11.
Midfielder - Pavel Nedved
The Czech maestro won the Ballon d’Or in 2003 for his thrilling performances with a brilliant Juventus side. After becoming the main man at the Old Lady following the departure of Zinadane Zidane, Nedved is another alumni of the 2002 Juventus side which lost to AC Milan in the final. He missed the concluding game itself due to suspension. If he had played the result might have been very different.
Attacker – Roberto Baggio/Dennis Bergkamp
This choice was so hard that we’ve chickened. To choose between football’s most exceptional nearly man, Roberto Baggio, and the genius that was Dennis Bergkamp, is like trying to decide the best flavour of ice cream. You are not going to get anywhere. Despite the fact that both men enjoyed their best moments outside of the Champions League, their careers surely deserved a European triumph.
Attacker - Ronaldo
For people of a certain generation there is only one Ronaldo: the fat one. The pre-eminent striker of the modern era was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Pacey, agile and with close control that defied physics, Il Fenomeno could have been the greatest of them all and by some margin were it not for his injuries. The furthest he got in the Champions League was a semi-final, but on route he did provide one of the tournaments most iconic performances with a stupendous hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Attacker – Diego Maradona
Maradona never achieved much in the European cup. The best his Napoli side achieved was the second round. But still no one’s going to leave Maradonna out of the side. Even at 50 percent he’s pretty much better than everyone else.
Manager – Arsene Wenger
The man who revolutionised English football before becoming a sad parody of his former self, Wenger has led his side to 17 successive qualifications for Europe’s elite tournament. The closest he came to winning was in 2006 when his ten-man Arsenal led Barcelona for most of the final match before succumbing to a 2-1 defeat.
Dino Zoff, Laurent Blanc, Gianlucca Zambrotta, Michael Ballack, Danielle de Rossi, Francesco Totti, Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
While compiling the teams there were a number of conclusions we were able to draw. First most elite players who have played in the European Cup have gone onto collect a winner’s medal in the competition. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of the world’s best goalkeepers and defenders. In the non-winning side the easiest selections were at the back because of the paucity of options.
In midfield there was greater choice, but nothing to compare with who was available selection for the winning team. Up front things were slightly different; not only was there a wealth of options for both sides, but both sets of attackers are equally as accomplished as the other. This suggests that Champions League victory is more dependent on a solid defence than a lethal front-line. The balance of positions amongst winners was like a pyramid with the widest array of eminent winners at the bottom in the defensive positions, midfielders in the middle and a smaller pool of great strikers at the top.
Similarly, when it comes to managers, those commonly numbered among the greats have at least one Champions League crown to their name. When it came to picking a manager for the non-winning 11 there wasn’t much of a selection at all. The list was made up of either good managers like Sir Bobby Robson, who did not have an illustrious Champions League pedigree, or young up and comers like Jurgen Klopp who still has plenty of time on his side. Arsene Wenger was easily the standout choice.
Also, the Juventus side of 2002 have three members in the starting non-winning 11 and a further one on the bench making them possibly the greatest side to never win the competition. All but two of the losing side have spent significant parts of their career in Serie A. On the other end of the scale Barcelona and AC Milan provide the bulk of the winning players and La Liga is the best represented national league. Of the 38 names listed a mere 11 have plied their trade in England, and of those, only Peter Schmeichal and Brian Clough won the trophy with English clubs.
So who would win this clash of titans? We will never know. In our estimation the game would start off cagey before both sides score a goal a piece to make it 1-1 at half-time. The second-half would start at a more frantic pace with a piece of magic by Diego Maradona giving his side the lead. With 15 minutes to go Messi plays a brilliant 1-2 with Cruyff and slots home the equaliser. Alfredo Di Stefano clinches the tie with a 90th minute winner to give the winning 11 a hard-fought victory. Mardonna though would take home all the plaudits for his mesmeric display. Well that’s what we think anyway.