Champions League: Picking an All-Time XI
Over the past 20 years, the Champions League has provided plenty of memorable moments from some of the world's greatest players.
The expanded format borne out of the old European Cup in 1992 may have served up many one-sided affairs or dead group games, but it has also supplied some extraordinary fixtures which have been the perfect showcase for many the past two decades' finest footballing talents.
Here is a pick of 11 of the best in their respective positions during that time. The only qualification is that they have lifted the trophy on at least one occasion. They have not been selected with any thought to how they would actually play together as a team.
As with any list of this nature, there will no doubt be plenty of disagreement. You can share your thoughts on who you think should have been included below.
GK: Peter Schmeichel
The Great Dane capped off his glorious eight years at Manchester United in the best style imaginable by winning the Champions League in his last game in 1999.
What's more, he did so wearing the captain's armband, due to the suspension of Roy Keane from the Barcelona final.
Although United were fortunate to win the final with two goals in stoppage time, the sight of Schmeichel cartwheeling in celebration after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's late winner was a fitting end to the team's excellent performance throughout the tournament.
RB: Javier Zanetti
There are few players who have served one club as long as Javier Zanett did before winning their first European Cup. He captained Inter Milan to the trophy in 2010.
The versatile Argentinian, the very definition of the model professional, captained the Nerazzurri to the title in his 15th season at the club at the age of 36.
Zanetti is one of the select few players to have made more than 100 Champions League appearances, and he is also the oldest player to score in the history of the competition.
CB: Carles Puyol
Another defensive stalwart to have passed the century mark of Champions League appearances is Carles Puyol.
The Barcelona captain has lifted the trophy for his one and only club in three occasions, including twice in three years as part of one of the finest club sides ever assembled.
Such is Puyol's value to the team that when he is missing through injury, they usually don't even bother trying to replace him with a recognised defender, instead sticking a midfielder in at the back and just forgetting about defending altogether.
CB: Fernando Hierro
Partnering a Barcelona legend at the heart of the defence in this XI is a true counterpart from Real Madrid.
Like Puyol, Fernando Hierro won the Champions League three times around the turn of the century.
The third and final of those three triumphs was achieved with the domineering centre-back as captain, providing the highlight of his 14 years of service at the Bernabeu.
LB: Paolo Maldini
Just as there are two Clasico rivals in the heart of this defence, so the full-backs both come from the opposite side of the Derby della Madonnina.
Maldini's reputation both as a footballer and a professional is unimpeachable, having spent an incredible 24 years at his one and only club AC Milan.
The defender hung up his boots in 2009 having won the Champions League a staggering five times, making him the first name on this teamsheet.
Barcelona's midfield maestro is truly a player of his age. The availability of insanely detailed and in-depth match statistics has served to highlight the importance the diminutive schemer has for both club and country.
For example, in Barca's victory in the 2011 final against Manchester United at Wembley, Xavi completed 124 passes, more than the entire United midfield put together.
Like Puyol, it is difficult to imagine that Barcelona would have become quite the side they did were it not for Xavi.
CM: Clarence Seedorf
Many of the players in this time can boast a personal record that may never be matched or bettered. Seedorf is one such player.
The former Netherlands international is the only player to win the Champions League with three different clubs—his boyhood club Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan (twice).
After a career in Europe which lasted 20 years Seedorf is still going strong, and he now plays for Brazilian club Botafogo.
ACM: Zinedine Zidane
Some of the greatest players to have ever played the game do not have a European Cup or Champions League winner's medal in their collection. Former three-time World Player of the year Ronaldo may be the most notable example.
Even though Zidane did win the competition, it is still surprising that a player of his stature only lifted the trophy once.
He certainly earned it, scoring one of the greatest goals in the history of cup finals with a tremendous left-footed volley to seal a 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final.
RF: Lionel Messi
The internet is already jam-packed full of words eulogising about Lionel Messi, so let's just repeat a couple of quick facts here:
- At the age of 25, Messi has already won the competition twice
- He has been the competition's top scorer for the past four seasons
- Last season he scored 14 goals in total, including five in one match against Bayer Leverkusen in the knockout phase
Speaking of statistics and records, the former Real Madrid striker is very much the man to beat.
Raul holds the records for both most appearances in the history of the European Cup (144) and the most goals (71), giving him a strike-rate just shy of a goal every other game.
While the majority of those goals were scored for Real Madrid—where he won three Champions League titles—he spent two productive years in the competition at German club Schalke, who he helped reach the semifinals in 2011.
LF: Cristiano Ronaldo
Seeing as Messi's entry was a short, sharp blast of facts, it's only fair that we do the same for his long-time nemesis, Ronaldo:
- He scored Manchester United's opener in the 2008 final and earned the man of the match award to go with the golden boot for that season's tournament.
- Since joining Real Madrid in 2009, he has scored 27 goals in just 30 Champions League appearances.
- Last season he scored 10 goals in as many appearances as Real lost out in the semifinal to Bayern Munich, again on penalties.