When Manchester United strode out onto the Camp Nou pitch on May 26, 1999 to contest the Champions League final against Bayern Munich, it was the first appearance by an English club in the competition’s final since the Heysel tragedy of May 29, 1985. During that gap, the tournament underwent several significant changes, including the introduction of group stages and the addition of additional qualifying clubs from the best countries.
Manchester United, along with Liverpool and Chelsea are the three English clubs to have lifted ol’ big ears in the Champions League’s modern history. Each one has won it in wildly improbable ways.
In the 1999 final, Bayern, sitting on a 1-nil lead in stoppage time, was Carl Smith in The Graduate at the altar in the Santa Barbara church about to marry Elaine Robinson. Suddenly Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer struck, and Bayern saw their prize slip away like Carl watching Ben Braddock spring from the church with his girl. Man United’s comeback was fit for a movie of its own, complete with iconic quotes from Sir Alex Ferguson – “Football. Bloody Hell.” and then-UEFA president Lennart Johansson – “The winners were crying and the losers were dancing.”
Liverpool’s 2005 match against AC Milan in Istanbul was the club’s first appearance in the European Cup/Champions League decider since their 1-0 loss to Juventus in the Heysel final. Down three goals at the half, the odds of a Liverpool win at the interval were reportedly 250 to 1. Indefatigable, the chants from Liverpool’s huge traveling contingent resounded through the stadium through the break. Captain Steven Gerrard’s 54th minute header then sparked six unforgettable minutes of magic that crested with a young Xabi Alonso staring down Dida for a potential score-levelling penalty. Liverpool fans could be forgiven for momentarily thinking they were the victims of some grand cosmic tease when Dida saved the shot, but Alonso set off worldwide pandemonium when he raced in to put back his own shot. The victory, secured by Jerzy Dudek’s manic dancing moves, was salvation for a club that had finished behind Everton that season and had seen their place as the dominant club in England usurped by the likes of Manchester United and Arsenal in the Premier League era. Five European Cups for Liverpool, the most for any English club, and the trophy was theirs to keep permanently.
Chelsea entered Bayern Munich’s ground on Saturday as the first road team in the final since Liverpool escaped AS Roma’s Stadio Olimpico with the cup in 1984. Roman Abramovich took control of Chelsea in June of 2003. Despite considerable domestic success since then, beginning with the club’s Premier League title in 2005 (its first top division claim since 1955), Abramovich’s supreme desire has been the Champions League. The cost to be Europe’s boss has been hundreds of millions of pounds spent on players and nine managers (including caretakers). At the time of Andre Villas-Boas’ March sacking, it looked like the trophy would be Abramovich’s ‘rosebud,’ an impossible obsession that made all other success unsatisfying. Yet Chelsea’s determined defence absorbed wave after wave of Bayern attack. And George McFly doppelganger Mario Gomez made gift after gift of a fresh football to fans sitting in the upper deck high above the Chelsea goal. And Didier Drogba soared past Jerome Boateng to unleash that header. And Petr Cech denied Arjen Robben’s penalty in the first extra-time session and then stopped Ivica Olic and Bastian Schweinsteiger in the shootout to seal perhaps most improbable of the aforementioned three victories.
Which of these three Champions League comeback triumphs is the best? That’s for you to decide.
Notes: I did not include Manchester United’s win over Chelsea in 2008 as it was not as improbable and not as truly dramatic (John Terry’s miss was tragicomedy, not drama) as the other three. I also decided to concentrate on the modern Champions League era, thus excluding prior wins by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest, and Aston Villa.