Picking an All-Time Champions League XI
The UEFA Champions League has brought hundreds of great players to the viewing public since its change of system and rebranding in 1992, not to mention countless epic nights of celebration for supporters of many clubs.
While many can be considered wonderful players, a Champions League elect might not necessarily include some names who, on a year-to-year basis, proved themselves exceptional talents at the domestic or international level.
The Champions League is a different animal, one requiring teams set up perfectly to win, home and away, against all types of opposition and in all kinds of locations.
Players such as Ronaldo, one of the world's greatest-ever strikers, missed perhaps too much of their careers through injury at a vital stage to have a major impact on the tournament. Others, like German duo Michael Ballack and Lothar Matthaus, were seen as the top players in the game—yet never managed to win the Champions League.
For selecting the best all-time Champions League XI, almost every player selected, with two exceptions, appeared in at least two finals and won the competition at least once. Some, of course, achieved significantly more than that.
In addition, only players who have now finished their careers in Europe are considered for selection, since current greats and potential stars may yet go on to earn their place in the pantheon of football's greatest winners.
Ryan Giggs, Steven Gerrard, Javier Zanetti, Lionel Messi and many more, therefore, do not feature in this XI. The team lines up with a back four, a diamond midfield formation and two forwards.
Goalkeeper: Oliver Kahn (Bayern Munich)
Few goalkeepers down the years have been as dominant for a huge club for a decade or more as Oliver Kahn was for Bayern Munich.
The German legend played in two finals, first in '99 where he suffered the heartache of conceding two late goals to lose the match, and secondly two years later. The 2001 version against Valencia was far more memorable for the stopper, as he made the decisive save in the penalty shootout to win the trophy for Bayern.
Kahn also saved two earlier spot-kicks in the shootout before his third save sealed the victory.
Right-back: Cafu (AS Roma, AC Milan)
Brazilian wing-back Cafu joined Milan just after their 2003 Champions League triumph and had just two years to wait before the club reached another final, his first.
He wasn't successful at the first attempt but picked up a winner's medal in 2007, albeit as a substitute, when Milan gained revenge over Liverpool.
Huge reserves of stamina and no shortage of ability on the ball made Cafu a real legend of the game in his own right, but year after year, the sight of him raiding down the right flank was a familiar one for fans of European football.
Left-back: Roberto Carlos (Real Madrid, Galatasaray)
What Cafu did on the right, Roberto Carlos did more explosively on the left.
A thunderous—and often wayward—shot from his left foot was an exciting spectacle in a game, and "Bobby Charles" was wont to let fly from the most ridiculous of angles at times, but his pace, power and determination made him difficult to beat defensively and a real weapon in attack.
His time in Spain with Real Madrid yielded three Champions League wins in 1998, 2000 and 2002, where Carlos played every minute and was also booked in all three finals.
Only 3 players have played more than 10000 minutes in the Champions League - 1.Raul 1,2033 2.Casillas 1,0973 3.Roberto Carlos 1,0519.— Football Stats Live® (@SocaStats) September 18, 2012
Centre-back: Fernando Hierro (Real Madrid)
Another Real Madrid treble-winner and a legend of the Champions League, Fernando Hierro was a classy but tough central defender who could also operate in midfield.
He featured in all three finals, starting two and appearing as a late sub in the 2000 win over Valencia.
As well as being a real leader on the pitch and a stout defender, Hierro was also known for his dead-ball prowess and recorded better than a goal every 10 games in the Champions League.
Centre-back: Paolo Maldini (AC Milan)
One of the best all-time defenders anywhere, Maldini's Champions League record is simply phenomenal.
He won the title no less than five times (including the European Cup in '89 and '90), spanning three different decades, and was also in the final as a runner-up in '93, '95 and 2005, totalling eight final appearances in all.
Did You Know? - In 2003, Paolo Maldini lifted d European Cup/Champions League as club captain exactly 40 yrs after his father Cesare did.— Tactics IQ Limited (@TacticsIQ) June 26, 2012
A classy, technically gifted and hugely professional defender, Maldini was renowned for his impeccable timing and reading of the game and played at both left- and centre-back.
Defensive midfield: Marcel Desailly (Marseille, AC Milan, Chelsea)
Marcel Desailly played in the 1993 and 1994 Champions League finals, winning both, thereby becoming the first player to win back-to-back titles with two different clubs.
His first was achieved with Marseille, while he then repeated the feat for AC Milan—scoring in the final in a 4-0 battering of Barcelona.
One of the best central defenders in the world at the peak of his career, Desailly was equally at home as the holding midfielder and played there for Milan in two consecutive finals, the victorious '94 campaign and a year later, as they lost to Ajax.
Right midfield: Manuel Rui Costa (AC Milan)
Portuguese playmaker Manuel Rui Costa was Milan's record signing when he joined from Fiorentina and went on to appear in two Champions League finals for the Italian giants.
An important starter in the centre of Milan's team, Rui Costa played almost the full 90 minutes of the 2003 final against Juventus, which ended 0-0 and which Milan eventually won on penalties.
He also made a late appearance in the 2005 final, this time as a substitute, but on this occasion was on the losing end of a shootout decider.
Elegant on the ball and capable of shots from range, excellent dribbling technique or opening up opposition defences with his range of passing, he was an all-round talent in attacking midfield before losing his place to an up-and-coming youngster by the name of Kaka.
Left midfield: Clarence Seedorf (Ajax, AC Milan, Real Madrid)
Seedorf made history by becoming the first player to win the Champions League with three different clubs.
Ajax won the title in '95, Real Madrid in '98 and AC Milan in 2003, all with Seedorf in the starting lineup. The Dutchman also picked up a fourth title in 2007 with Milan.
A powerful and intelligent player with boundless energy, Seedorf could play anywhere across the midfield line and scored more than a few important and spectacular goals along the way.
Attacking midfield: Zinedine Zidane (Juventus, Real Madrid)
Few players had the kind of impact on the game that Zinedine Zidane managed, but it took him until 2002, just four years before he retired, to win the biggest club trophy of them all.
He had already reached two finals with Juventus, both of which his side lost, before moving to Real Madrid in 2001. Zidane played a key role in helping Madrid win what is currently their last Champions League victory to date, as he scored one of the most memorable cup final goals of all time against Bayer Leverkusen.
Graceful, effortless and inherently untouchable on the ball, Zidane was one of the best in the world in his prime and had the creativity to unlock any defence and the technique to execute any pass.
11 years ago today, Zinedine Zidane shocked the world & won Real Madrid their 9th Uefa Champions League title.. pic.twitter.com/NE63kVaBUi— WeAreMadrid10 (@WeAreMadrid10) May 16, 2013
Forward: Raul (Real Madrid, Schalke)
The top scorer in the competition's history, Raul was a Real Madrid legend who won no less than three Champions League titles with the Spanish side.
Raul hit a total of 71 goals in the Champions League, with five coming for Schalke and the rest for Madrid. One of those for Madrid was scored in the 2000 final as Real swatted Valencia aside 3-0.
Perfect as a link man between attack and midfield, with great ability and technique on the ball, predatory instincts and an insatiable appetite to work hard for the team, Raul truly was a world-class all-round forward. He could also operate in wide areas down the left or in a deeper role, but his best was certainly saved for playing in a roaming second-striker position.
Forward: Ruud van Nistelrooy (PSV, Manchester United, Real Madrid)
The main striker and final player in the XI is former Manchester United, PSV Eindhoven and Real Madrid striker Ruud van Nistelrooy. The Dutchman never won the Champions League, the only player in this XI not to do so, but his performances and goals mark him out as a huge success in the competition nonetheless.
UPDATED - All-time goalscorers in the Champions League: Messi surpasses Van Nistelrooy pic.twitter.com/69p1Gfk3nN— M E S S I S T A T S (@MessiStats) March 12, 2013
Few players can claim to match the consistency in front of goal that van Nistelrooy managed throughout his career, and in the Champions League, he was indeed the very best of the best in terms of finding the net.
United reached two finals within three years of van Nistelrooy departing the club, but his lack of success in this competition shouldn't detract from the history which he added to it.
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