The modern era of the Champions League has thrown up some classic final encounters in the years between 2000 and 2007.
More often than not, the two best teams of the campaign end up slugging it out for Europe’s top prize, and something has to give.
The line between winning and losing this match is a fine one, but there is often something seen in the final which illustratres the difference between the two sides.
2007: AC Milan ‘A Poacher’
The 2007 final in Greece was hardly a classic, but the difference between the sides was Pippo Inzaghi, a footballer who often splits opinion about his abilities but silences most with his goals record and trophies tally. At 34 years old and hardly the quickest player, many didn’t see him causing Jamie Carragher a problem.
Inzaghi is rumoured to only eat pasta without sauce to maintain his condition—however, it was his backside that deflected a Pirlo free-kick for the first goal. His second was born of a superb Kaka pass, but unlike Liverpool, Milan had Inzaghi at hand to finish the move, rounding Reina to score and seal the tie.
Of course, Dirk Kuyt was to make the last few minutes nervy ones for the Rossonieri faithful, but too often Liverpool's fine play ended in the final third.
The difference between the two sides was ‘A Poacher’—and that poacher was Pippo Inzaghi.
2006: Barcelona ‘Inspired Subsitution’
As time ran out in Paris, a defence which hadn’t conceded a goal in the Champions League for 10 matches looked to hold out and secure Arsenal the first ever European Cup success in their history. Samuel Eto'o had been poor, as had Ronaldinho. Frank Rijkaard needed to take action as his team were running out of ideas.
Rijkaard brought on Henrik Larsson for Mark van Bommel and the rest was history. With two defence splitting passes, Larsson set up Eto’o and Beletti, and the game was finished for 10-man Arsenal.
Thierry Henry remarked "People always talk about Ronaldinho and Eto'o, but I didn't see them today—I saw Henrik Larsson. He came on—he changed the game, that is what killed the game. You need to talk about the proper footballer who made the difference, and that was Henrik Larsson tonight."
It must have been difficult for Henry to admit but he was right, and having this option to come on from the bench was devastating and an ‘inspired substitution’ by Rijkaard.
2005: Liverpool ‘Refusal to Accept Defeat’
At halftime in Istanbul, Liverpool trudged off the pitch despondent, having been outclassed by AC Milan.
Forget talk of Milan players celebrating a win already the seven--time champions know exactly what is required to win a European Cup and premature celebrations are something Carlo Ancelotti would not tolerate. Perhaps Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez played up this talk of Milan celebrations to gee up his players.
That he certainly did.
The Liverpool players claimed they could still hear their fans signing even three goals down at half time—this might have helped the players, but fans can’t score goals.
In an astonishing second half, Liverpool pegged Milan back to 3-3. They held out and eventually won on penalties. Liverpool owed their victory to several factors—most of all their ‘refusal to accept defeat.’
2004: FC Porto ‘Astute Manager’
While some Celtic fans were already aware of Jose Mourinho’s ‘continental’ approach to playing the game, the rest of Europe weren’t really up to speed with the Portuguese tactician’s abilities. By the time his FC Porto side lined up against Monaco in the Auf Schalke Arena in the 2004 final they certainly were aware of him—especially after his side put out the much fancied Manchester United.
Mourihno's innovation and scientific approach stunned some in Portugal—he even put the details of FCP’s training regime on the clubs website. A 20km run termed an ‘extended aerobic exercise’ was somewhat of an understatement, but it paid dividends and was vital to Mourinho’s "pressão alta" (high pressure) approach, which caused many of their opponents to give away possession in dangerous areas or succumb to Porto’s superior fitness.
The final was a one sided contest which ended 3-0 to FCP, but it was also Mourinho’s last game in charge. FC Porto has not replaced their 'astute manager,' and has failed to reach those heights since.
2003: AC Milan ‘Character’
AC Milan and Juventus contested perhaps the most disappointing European Cup final in recent memory. The game at Old Trafford saw the woodwork struck twice and a disallowed goal during the 120 minutes.
The ‘character’ referred to in this case was that of Milan’s Andriy Shevchenko. It was to be his goal which was disallowed as the referee judged that Manuel Rui Costa was in an offside position blocking Juventus goalkeeper Gigi Buffon’s view, replays suggested he wasn’t.
More poignantly, it was a year to the day since Valery Lobanovsky had died, Shevchenko’s former coach at Dinamo Kiev. A clearly emotional Shevchenko went on to score the winning penalty and dedicated the win to a man he says he owes his career to.
It was Milan’s sixth European Cup triumph. Shevchenko showed his ‘character’ by flying the next day to Ukraine and lay his winners medal on the grave of his former mentor.
2002: Real Madrid ‘Genius’
Genius is often a word which is over used in football as the phrase ‘a goal fit to win any game’. This accusation cannot be applied to Zinedine Zidane’s 45th-minute goal in the final in Glasgow in 2002.
The game was level after two soft goals and Bayer Leverkusen and Real Madrid looked to be heading at stalemate. Zidane had other ideas, and struck with his left foot at a cross on the volley from 17 yards, scoring the goal of the tournament—and perhaps of any tournament.
At £47m, one could argue that such brilliance is to be expected, but his price represented how good he was, how desperate Juventus wanted to keep him, how desperate Real Madrid wanted him, and how far away anyone else in football was to his ability.
In the days after his goal many inside the Real Madrid hierarchy responded to those who had criticised the fee paid for the French genius Zidane with a ‘that’s why we paid it’—and no one has questioned his fee since.
2001: Bayern Munich ‘Redemption’
A thesaurus places the words salvation, deliverance, release, and recovery next to the word redemption. Ask any of the eight Bayern Munich players who were survivors of the 1999 final and went on to win it in 2001 how they felt, and they would use these words.
Perhaps the agony felt by the Munich players who dominated Manchester United but lost was best summed up by Samuel Kuffour, who beat his fists on to the turf in sheer frustration and disbelief at conceding two late goals.
In 2001 they had the chance to redeem themselves, however they were up against Valencia, who had themselves been beaten in the final the year previous.
Munich's mental strength and desire for ‘redemption’ had to be stronger than Valencia’s, and it was, they won the match on penalties.
2000: Real Madrid ‘Knowing Your History’
Having failed to beat Valencia twice in the league, and sitting outside the Champions League palaces, Real Madrid went into the 2000 final requiring a victory to see them compete in the competition the following season. Hector Cuper’s Valencia were in form and known for their devastating attacking football, but Real Madrid picked them off and won the match 3-0.
This might well be the poorest of the Real Madrid sides to lift the European Cup—but how many ‘big’ European clubs have yet to lift this trophy? No other team in European football can compare nine different winning squads—and no team possesses the history that Real Madrid do in this competition.
It is perhaps this history, and tradition of winning that saw Real through this game.
With experience in the side in the form of Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo and Fernando Redondo, as well as Raul and Fernando Morientes and their coach Vicente Del Bosque, the squad—although weak in some areas—had players that knew when to hold on to the ball, when to commit men forward, and how to defend a lead when it really mattered.
They did this to perfection, and the pick of their three goals was the one by Raul, who ran 70 yards across the pitch to score from the tightest of angles after rounding Santiago Canizares.
They might not have been the greatest Real Madrid side, but they ‘knew their history’ of success in the competition, and their win was emphatic as any other.