To be truthful, the Champions League Final has produced more forgettable matches than memorable fixtures. By the time the final rolls around, one team has nothing left in the tank after a long, gruelling season. Players are either ready for vacation, or focusing on international competitions like the World Cup or Euro.
That doesn’t mean there haven’t been great games in the past. Some of the best fixtures in the history of soccer have taken place in the Champions League Final or European Cup Final as it was known previous. Here are five of the best.
2005: AC Milan vs. Liverpool
As a Liverpool supporter, I may be biased in saying this but this might be the greatest soccer game ever played in any competition. Milan supporters are still trying to forget the collapse at Istanbul, while Liverpool still relish the magical day in Turkey in 2005.
Milan came in as heavy favourites as they topped Group F in the Group Stage. After decisive victories over Manchester United and derby rivals Inter Milan, i Rossoneri survived a scare from PSV Eindhoven in the semifinals. While Milan did advance, the Dutch side did expose Milan’s back four thus planting a seed of doubt in the Italian side.
Liverpool struggled mightily in the English Premier League, but found success in Europe. After finishing second in Group A, the Reds knocked out Bayer Leverkusen, Juventus and English rivals Chelsea to reach the final.
The match began brightly for Milan as defender Paolo Maldini headed in a free kick from Andre Pirlo in the first minute. Hernan Crespo then added two goals late in the first half to give Milan a seemingly insurmountable 3-0 halftime lead.
But Liverpool made the impossible, possible. Led by their captain Steven Gerrard, the Reds roared back in the second half. Gerrard headed home a cross in the 54th minute to get Liverpool on the board. Two minutes later, Vladimir Smicer scored to pull Liverpool to within one. Three minutes after that, Liverpool were awarded a penalty as Gerrard was taken down inside the 18-yard box. Xabi Alonso took the penalty but was stopped by Dida. However, the Brazilian keeper spilled the rebound which Alonso alertly pounced on, and finished neatly to even the score. Extra time solved nothing, so penalties were required.
Liverpool gained an early advantage when Dietmar Hamann and Djibril Cisse converted their spot kicks while Serginho and Pirlo were both stopped by Liverpool keeper Jerzy Dudek. The door slightly opened for Milan when John Arne Riise was stopped by Dida and Jon Dahl Tomasson scored for Milan. Smicer and Kaka exchanged goals, to keep Liverpool’s advantage at one. It was up to Andriy Shevchenko to keep Milan’s hopes alive. But the Ukraine striker was stopped by Dudek, which gave Liverpool their fifth European title.
1999: Manchester United vs. Bayern Munich
English football was still trying to repair itself from the damage caused in the 1980s, when the 1999 Champions League Final rolled around. After years of hooliganism and violent behaviour, England were trying to clean up the game at home and abroad. Manchester United were seen as the team that could lead English football out of the darkness and into the light.
Bayern Munich came into the match as favourites despite missing two key players. Forward Giovane Elber and left back Bixente Lizarazu suffered knee injuries that would leave them out of the final. United had their own issues as midfielders Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were suspended for the final.
The two teams did face each other in the second Group Stage, drawing both games at each other’s ground. This would be the match that would finally decide a winner.
Bayern got the early goal they desired as forward Mario Basler’s free kick was perfectly placed past the wall, and into the bottom corner of the net in the sixth minute. Bayern sat back for the rest of the half, content to go into the break with the one-goal advantage.
Bayern started the second half by putting pressure on the United goal. But the Bavarian side failed to capitalize on their opportunities, leaving the door ajar for United. The Red Devils started to take the play to Bayern as the game wore on, but couldn’t find that crucial goal. That changed in injury time. In the 91st minute, David Beckham’s corner wasn’t cleared by the Bayern defence. Ryan Giggs weakly directed the ball towards the net, until Teddy Sheringham who finished with aplomb, to equalize the game. Just over 30 seconds later, United won another corner. Beckham once again took it, and his delivery found Sheringham, who headed the ball to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who deftly put the ball into the roof of the net for a stunning winner. It was United’s first European title since 1968 and the first treble in the club’s history after winning both the English Premier League and FA Cup titles.
1960: Real Madrid vs. Eintracht Frankfurt
The European Cup was still in its infancy when Real Madrid and Eintracht Frankfurt met at Hampden Park in Glasgow in 1960. Both teams had won emotional semifinal ties to reach the final. Real Madrid knocked out hated rival Barcelona while Eintracht Frankfurt denied Rangers on playing for the European title in their home city.
Real Madrid were looking for their fifth straight European title and keeping their monopoly on the European Cup. This was only the fifth European Cup final ever with Real winning the first four titles.
Eintracht opened the scoring in the 18th minute, thanks to a Richard Kress goal. But Real Madrid stuck back with three goals before the half ended. Two goals from Alfredo Di Stefano and one from Hungarian superstar Ferenc Puskas, gave Real Madrid a 3-1 halftime lead.
Real Madrid continued their dominance into the second half. Di Stefano completed his hat-trick while Puskas scored three more times in the second 45 minutes. Frankfurt did get a brace from Erwin Stein but Real Madrid came away with a resounding 7-3 victory. The European press were quick to praise the match, some calling it the greatest match of all time. It opened the eyes of many a football fan in Europe and demonstrated the power of Real Madrid in the early years of the competition.
2013: Bayern Munich vs. Borussia Dortmund
The first all German final ironically took place at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2013. Bayern Munich were enjoying an outstanding season, having clinched the Bundesliga title in record time. Die Roten were looking for a treble as the German Cup Final was going to be staged the next week.
Borussia Dortmund were the hipster team in European football, playing an attractive, eye-catching style that was pleasing for both fan and critic alike. While both sides were German, they were opposites in other ways. Bayern were dubbed “Club Hollywood” for their extravagant spending and posh lifestyles in the white-collar city of Munich. Borussia Dortmund were the blue-collar team that were owned by the supporters of the club, when it looked like they would go bankrupt in the early 2000s.
Both teams had been impressive in the Champions League leading up to the final. Bayern Munich topped Group F, then proceeded to eliminate Arsenal, Juventus and Barcelona to reach the final. The semifinal against Barcelona was a surprise as Bayern destroyed the Catalan side, even though Barcelona were considered the favourites.
Borussia Dortmund finished first in Group D, then scored impressive knockout victories over Shakhtar Donetsk, Malaga and Real Madrid.
The first half was scoreless, even though Dortmund had the better opportunities. Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer made some critical saves in the first 45 minutes, to keep the game level at intermission.
Bayern woke up in the second half, and started to carry the play. They were rewarded with a goal at the hour mark when Mario Mandzukic finished off a three-way passing play from close range. Dortmund equalized as Marco Reus was fouled in the penalty area. Ilkay Gundogan converted from the spot, levelling the score and setting up a grandstand finish.
Arjen Robben turned out to be the hero for Bayern Munich as he took a back-heel pass from Franck Ribery, broke in all alone, and slid the ball past Roman Weidenfeller in the 89th minute, giving Bayern Munich its fifth European championship.
2006: Barcelona vs. Arsenal
Arsenal become the first London side, to reach the Champions League Final in 2006. The Gunners had looked very impressive in the Group Stage, topping the table in Group B by five points. After eliminating Real Madrid, Juventus and Villareal in the knockout rounds, Arsenal were poised to finally win Europe’s biggest prize.
Barcelona were no slouches either. Having won the La Liga title, Barcelona were looking to complete the league/Europe double. The Blaugrana finished first in Group C, then proceeded to eliminate Chelsea, Benfica and AC Milan to reach the final in Paris.
The key moment in the match happened in the 18th minute when Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann was shown a red card for taking down Samuel Eto’o outside the box. Not only did backup goalie Manuel Almunia had to go between the sticks, it forced manager Arsene Wenger to remove midfielder Robert Pires from the match.
Despite that, Arsenal did open the scoring in the 37th minute, as Sol Campbell’s header managed to find the back of the net, giving Arsenal a 1-0 lead at halftime.
Barcelona came out storming in the second half, as they tried to use their numerical advantage on Arsenal. As the half wore on, Arsenal began to tire as wave after wave of Barcelona attacks threatened the Arsenal goal. Finally, in the 76th minute, Eto’o found the weakness in the Arsenal defence, and evened the score. Just five minutes later, Henrik Larsson’s cross found Juliano Belletti who slid the ball through Almunia’s legs, giving Barcelona the 2-1 lead. Barcelona held on to win their second European title. Arsenal would go home empty-handed.
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