It may seem like a lifetime ago since Eric Abidal lifted the Champions League trophy at Wembley, but the Champions League finally returns this week.
Barcelona are once again favourites to lift the trophy at the Allianz Arena in May, but Manchester United, Chelsea and Real Madrid won’t give up the trophy without a fight.
One of the most intriguing games of the opening round sees Manchester City take on Napoli at the Etihad Stadium. You would have to be foolish to write off City’s chances of making the final, especially with the likes of Sergio Aguero, David Silva and Carlos Tevez at Roberto Mancini’s disposal. Whilst many people have tipped the newcomers to go far, they will first of all have to progress from the ‘group of death’ with Bayern Munich, Villarreal and the Italians all posing big threats.
There have been a number of great Champions League clashes between English and Italian sides in recent years; here’s our top five.
We start the countdown at Old Trafford back in April 2007 as Roma traveled to Manchester for the second leg of the quarter finals holding a 2-1 lead. Italian teams have always possessed firm defences, but the Red Devils proved that theory wrong with a scintillating performance that took the rest of the Champions League by surprise.
Many people had tipped a tight encounter with Roma going strong in the tournament but United blew them away from the very first minute. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men needed a quick start and they duly got it in the eleventh minute as Michael Carrick opened the scoring before Alan Smith doubled the lead with a stunning strike seven minutes later.
The passage into the next round looked secure two minutes later as Wayne Rooney finished off a brilliant move before Cristiano Ronaldo made it four on the stroke of half-time. With a four-goal lead at half-time, United didn’t ease up and Ronaldo grabbed his second of the match five minutes after the restart. Carrick and Patrice Evra completed the rout either side of a Daniele De Rossi strike as United secured a semi-final spot against fellow Italian’s AC Milan.
Old Trafford has seen plenty of great nights in the Champions League, but the Roma display may take some beating.
Next in the countdown comes from White Hart Lane in November of last year as Inter Milan traveled to London for the fourth game of the group stage. Gareth Bale would be the star of the show—two weeks after hitting a hat-trick at the San Siro—with one of the best performances by an individual in the Champions League.
A defeat would have left Spurs trailing Inter by six points, so losing was never an option. Following an even opening to the game, Spurs took the lead through Rafael Van Der Vaart as he finished off Luka Modric’s pass with a fierce drive past Luca Castellazzi. The goal put Rafael Benitez’s men on the back foot and Bale was making Maicon look like an amateur as he wreaked havoc down the left.
On the hour mark Spurs doubled the lead and Bale was at the heart of it once again as he teed up Peter Crouch for an easy finish. Ten minutes from time Samuel Eto’o set up a tense finale with a brilliant angled drive that left Spurs fans biting their fingernails. They needn’t have worried though as Bale sprinted past Maicon once again before producing a perfect cross for Roman Pavlyuchenko to complete the formalities.
The victory for Spurs proved to be one of their greatest nights in Europe for sometime, with Bale stealing the show on the greatest stage of all.
We have to go back to April 1999 for No. 3 on the countdown as Manchester United traveled to Juventus for the second leg of their semifinal tie. Going into the match the Italians looked favourites to go through and reach their fourth consecutive final with home advantage and the all important away goal. It wouldn’t pan out like that, however, on a roller-coaster night at the Stadio delle Alpi.
The Red Devils knew going into the game that they needed to score, but that was always going to be a hard task against Juve’s watertight defence. Sir Alex Ferguson’s men got off to the worst possible start as a double from Filippo Inzaghi in the opening eleven minutes meant it was going to be a huge task to reach the final at the Nou Camp.
Twenty minutes before half-time, the influential Roy Keane got United back into the game with a perfect header that beat Angelo Peruzzi. Keane’s goal had certainly lifted United and ten minutes later his side had one foot in the final as Dwight Yorke headed the equaliser. Following relentless pressure from the home side, United stood firm and with ten minutes left on the clock, Andy Cole sealed the win as he tapped home.
It was one of the greatest Champions League comebacks of all-time as United defeated the great Juventus before going on to win the final in Barcelona.
Second in the countdown comes from 2003 as Arsenal traveled to Inter Milan for their penultimate fixture in the group stage. The Gunners looked to be heading out of the Champions League following a 3-0 defeat from the Italians at Highbury earlier in the group and they headed to Italy knowing that three points was a must.
Thierry Henry was majestic at the San Siro and he opened the scoring after 25 minutes, following a neat exchange with Ashley Cole. The lead wouldn’t last long however, as Inter equalised through a deflected Christian Vieri strike. Despite Arsenal dominating the opening half they could have easily found themselves 2-1 down if it weren't for a brilliant save from Jens Lehmann following a Marco Materazzi free-kick.
Four minutes after the restart, Arsenal took the lead once again as Henry teed up Ljungberg for an easy finish. The Gunners were certainly living on the edge following relentless pressure from Inter, but Henry put the seal on the win as he sprinted away before beating Javier Zanetti and firing the ball home. Arsenal compounded Inter’s misery in the final few minutes as Edu and Robert Pires added further goals to seal a 5-1 win.
Arsene Wenger’s men have had some great nights in the Champions League, but this one will certainly take some beating.
First place in the countdown comes from an unforgettable night in Istanbul in 2005 as Liverpool produced the greatest Champions League comeback of all time. The game will certainly live long in the memory of all Liverpool fans as they sealed their fifth European Cup thanks to an inspired performance from Steven Gerrard.
Straight from kick-off Liverpool were trailing as Italian legend Paulo Maldini headed Milan in front from Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick. Things were to get worse for Liverpool as Harry Kewell limped out of the game in the opening stages before Hernan Crespo doubled the lead. On the stroke of half-time, Crespo put Milan 3-0 ahead with a deft finish over Jerzy Dudek and it looked game over for Rafael Benitez’s men.
Liverpool looked down and out at half-time but Steven Gerrard gave the Reds a lifeline just after the restart with a well placed header. The momentum was all with Liverpool now and one minute later Vladimir Smicer found the net with a long range effort. The comeback was complete on the hour mark as the Reds were awarded a penalty with Xabi Alonso finishing at the second time of asking.
In extra-time, Dudek denied Andriy Shevchenko with a fantastic double save and it looked like Liverpool’s name was on the trophy. Dudek proved to be the hero in the shoot-out as he saved from Shevchenko to seal Liverpool’s fifth European Cup with a 3-2 shoot-out win.