The 10 greatest moments in Champions League history
From Zidane’s majestic volley to Terry’s agonising slip, the Champions League has provided highs and lows for football fans ever since it replaced the European Cup as the continent’s premier competition in 1992.
The pinnacle of club football, only the greatest rise to the occasion when the tournament’s spine tingling anthem – based on George Frideric Handel’s Zadok the Priest and known simply as “Champions League” – drifts across floodlit stands.
The first edition of the new-format Champions League was won by Marseille, who beat Marco van Basten’s Milan 1-0 in the final – defender Basile Boli scoring the game’s only goal. Marseille remain the only French side to win the competition, but their achievement is not enough to earn themselves a spot in our list of the ten greatest moments in the tournament’s history.
Liverpool stun AC Milan in the miracle of Istanbul
Rafa Benitez’s Liverpool side had finished fifth in the Premier League and were clear underdogs, even the dogmatic Jamie Carragher admitting their makeshift side would struggle against the settled brilliance of AC Milan. The Italian team’s starting XI, who had finished runners up in Serie A, read like a who’s who of world greats: Dida, Cafu, Stam, Nesta, Maldini, Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf, Kaká, Shevchenko and Crespo.
The first half followed the expected script – an early goal from Milan captain Maldini was followed by a brilliant Crespo double. Liverpool trudged off at the break 3-0 down and with even their staunchest of fans fearing the worst, but adversity has always brought out the best in Steven Gerrard. The Liverpool captain was a man possessed in the second half, his energy revitalising a team who were unrecognisable from the team who had surrendered so meekly in the first. A brilliant Gerrard header after 54 minutes gave Liverpool hope, before quick-fire goals from Smicer and Alonso completely turned the tie on its head. Milan were stunned, Liverpool were buoyed and their fans were in dreamland. 90 minutes and extra-time came and went without another goal, and the game went to penalties. A still shellshocked Milan missed three of their five spot kicks allowing Liverpool to complete the greatest comeback in Champions League history and secure their their fifth Champions League trophy.
Manchester United stun Bayern Munich to complete historic treble
Having completed the domestic double Sir Alex Ferguson’s exciting young team went into the 1998-99 Champions League final on the cusp of greatness. Bayern Munich, however, were no pushovers. They had already won the Bundesliga and had the domestic cup final still to come. Who would triumph in the battle of the trebles? The odds were stacked in the German champions favour. With Roy Keane and Paul Scholes suspended, United were missing their first choice midfield pairing, their heartbeat and creative fulcrum.
As Ferguson would so often during his career, he turned to youth – David Beckham, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville all starting the biggest game of their lives. It was the German side who struck first, however, Mario Basler scoring after just six minutes. As the clock ticked into injury time Bayern’s early goal still separated the sides. Three minutes were indicated by the fourth official. Three minutes for United to achieve what they hadn’t managed in the previous 90. Three minutes were all they needed.
A Beckham corner in the 91st minute caused panic, the ball eventually breaking to substitute Teddy Sheringham who swept home an equaliser. Bayern were crushed, United jubilant. But the Class of ‘92 were not done yet. The tireless Beckham swung over another corner. Sheringham reacted quickest, heading across goal to fellow substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjær who smashed home the winner and broke a thousand Bayern hearts.
Zidane volleys home the greatest goal in Champions League history
It might not be the most emphatic – Ronaldo’s 40-yard screamer against Porto could lay claim to that – nor the most jaw-dropping – for it’s sheer audacity Ronaldinho’s toe-poke against Chelsea would win that, but for both its magnitude and technical brilliance, Zinedine Zidane’s volley against Bayern Leverkusen in the 2001-02 final at Hampden Park stands alone as the greatest goal the tournament has seen.
As the ball dropped out of the cold, Glaswegian night sky, the world watched as the greatest footballer on the planet set himself, before connecting with a perfect volley from the edge of the box. The ball arced up and over the watching Leverkusen defence, past their stranded goalkeeper and into the top corner of the net. As well as turning out to be the winner, it was also scored with Zidane’s weaker foot. Tres magnifique.
John Terry’s slip hands Manchester United the trophy
The two best teams in England met in the 2007-08 final during an era of English dominance in the Champions League. A Manchester United side replete with the attacking triumvirate of Ronaldo, Rooney and Tevez came up against the power of Chelsea – Cech, Terry, Makelele, Lampard and Drogba creating a formidable spine for a team that had finished the Premier League season seven points adrift of United.
A tight, tetchy affair between two heavyweights who knew each others game inside out ended in a 1-1 draw. Penalties loomed large, and after Ronaldo’s miss four perfect Chelsea spot kicks gave their captain the chance to step up and secure the club’s first ever Champions League trophy. History beckoned, but Terry slipped during his run up and hit the post. It was a reprieve United would grasp with both hands, Alex Ferguson’s men dispatching two further penalties to secure a domestic and European double and leave Terry in tears.
Barcelona stun Paris Saint-Germain
This game had everything: the brash, nouveau riche new kid on the block PSG, taking on Champions League aristocracy in the form of Barcelona; two managers struggling under the weight of their clubs’ expectations and the (second) greatest comeback the tournament has seen. Unai Emery’s PSG went in the 2016-17 last-16 tie desperate to prove themselves on the European stage. Serial Ligue 1 winners, the French champions needed a big result against one of Europe’s top teams to solidify their potential and please their wealthy Qatari owners.
A draw against Barcelona in the last-16 presented the perfect opportunity to do so, and after a 4-0 first leg destruction of Jose Enrique’s side PSG looked like they had the result the club craved. But beware a wounded Barcelona. From the moment the second leg kicked off at the Camp Nou, it looked like being a long night for the French side. The question was simple – could Barcelona turn their superiority into goals and become the first team to overturn a 4-0 first-leg deficit? The answer was an emphatic yes, with three goals in the last five minutes sealing a barely-believable 6-1 comeback win for the Spanish side.
Real Madrid seal La Decima
Real Madrid are Champions League royalty; no club measures their success against how recently they have won Europe’s premier competition like the Spanish giants. Madrid’s greatest moments are synonymous with the tournament’s history – from Di Stefano’s five European cup wins in a row in the fifties to Raul’s record haul of goals in the early noughties. No one could have foreseen, therefore, the drought which followed Madrid’s ninth champions league win in 2002. The first few years were considered a blip, but a decade later a Madrid team had not even made it to the final let alone laid their hands on the trophy. The blip that became a drought had become an all consuming yearning, and so the tension around the club when they reached the 2014 final was palpable.
Throw in the fact victory for Los Blancos would be their tenth – La Decima – and that the opposition were their fierce cross-town rivals Atletico – and it was paralysing. The pressure would be enough to see most team’s wilt, especially after going a goal down in the first half to an Atletico team built to defend a lead, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s Real were built of sterner stuff than most. A last minute Sergio Ramos equaliser sent the tie to extra time, before Madrid turned on the afterburners, scoring three unanswered goals to seal victory on the greatest night in Madrid’s history.
Jose Mourinho becomes the special one
It was the Champions League run that introduced Jose Mourinho to the world. Few European Cup winning teams can have had greater focus on the manager than the players, but love him or loathe him that is the power of the Special One. Despite winning the Uefa Cup the previous season Porto were 50-1 outsiders to win the Champions League when it began in September 2003. A 1-1 draw away to Real Madrid hinted at their potential, however, and in the knockout stage the Portuguese side came into their own.
Built in Mourinho’s image, their defensive solidity was paired with a swagger going forward, Deco the creative spark in a side who went into their last-16 tie against Manchester United fuelled with self belief. A 2-1 win at the Estádio do Dragão set up a nervy second leg at Old Trafford, and Porto looked to be heading out after Paul Scholes’s first half goal. But a last minute Costinha equaliser stunned United and sent an ecstatic Mourinho sprinting down the touchline towards his players – much to the ire of Ferguson. Porto and Mourinho never looked back, marching on to the final where they put Monaco to the sword, running out comfortable 3-0 winners. A few weeks later Mourinho had joined Chelsea. “Please don’t call me arrogant,” he told the assembled journalists, “but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”
Brazilian Ronaldo lights up Old Trafford
Few sights set the pulses raising quite like the original Ronaldo in full flight. Immensely powerful, deftly skillful and with an eye for goal to rival any striker in history – at his best the Brazilian was almost unplayable. Sadly Ronaldo’s latter years were besieged by lengthy spells on the sidelines, but fleeting glimpses of his raw talent still hinted at the player within. The second leg of Real Madrid’s semi-final against Manchester United in 2002-03 is case in point. After two years out with terrible knee injuries, Ronaldo scored a stunning hat-trick at Old Trafford to almost single handedly wreck United’s Champions League dreams.
Two long range strikes either side of a trademark close range finish ensured Madrid’s galacticos progressed to the final despite losing 4-3 on the night. With 20 minutes left to play Madrid’s manager Vicente Del Bosque substituted the Brazilian – much to United’s relief – and all four corners of Old Trafford rose as one to salute one of the greatest individual performances the competition has seen.
Barcelona’s “carrousel” leaves United dizzy
“They get you on that carousel and they make you dizzy with their passing”. It was an impressively prophetic statement from Sir Alex Ferguson ahead of the 2008-09 final between Barcelona and Manchester United. The defending champions, United were quietly confident of unleashing Ronaldo and Rooney on the break to ruffle Pep Guardiola’s team of artists. Even counter-attacks involve having the ball, however, and Barcelona were in no mood to share.
From kick off the Spanish giants were a whirlwind of passing, movement and craft, monopolising possession and suffocating United in the cloying night air of Rome’s Stadio Olimpico. Messi was at his imperial best, capping a brilliant performance with the final touch on a beautifully crafted team goal. The score ended 2-0, but Barcelona’s mesmerising performance was one for the ages, leaving a wounded Ferguson to sum up his team’s inferiority: “In my time as manager, it’s the best team I’ve faced. No one has given us a hiding like that”.
Gareth Bale announces himself to the world
Gareth Bale had shown flickers of his undoubted talent in the Premier League for Tottenham, but during the group stage of the 2009-10 Champions League campaign the then 22-year-old announced himself to the world with one of the most exhilarating performances in Champions League history. Down to 10 men after goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was dismissed and trailing 4-0 at halftime, Harry Redknapp’s exciting Spurs team looked dead and buried against reigning Champions Inter Milan.
But Bale had other plans. Taking the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half, the young Welsh tiro used his searing pace and power to burst down the left and score three unanswered goals, leaving a scorched Maicon – a World Cup and Champions League winner, no-less – a broken mess. Tottenham lost the game, but Bale’s performance hinted at his future greatness. It also set Tottenham up for the return game at White Hart Lane. Bale again tortured the beleaguered Maicon and Tottenham leapfrogged the Italians to finish top of the group.