20. Manchester United 1998-2001
Whatever about the performance in the 1999 Champions League final itself, the injury-time crescendo was actually a fitting way for Manchester United to end that scarcely believable season. Over the 59 games of the three competitions they won, Alex Ferguson’s team scored 13 late winners – five of them in stoppage time. They also came from losing positions to win on 15 separate occasions. Both are records.
Evidently, this was a side with an awful lot of character. As assistant manager Steve McLaren said, “I don’t think this team ever loses. It just runs out of time.” It was a quality personified by Roy Keane and the core of youth graduates such as Paul Scholes, as well as complemented by a glorious sense of adventure. Ultimately, those attributes brought a unique treble, 97 league goals the following season, a then record points haul and only the English league’s fourth three-in-a-row.
But United were also offset by an inherent haphazardness that ensured reclaiming the Champions League was always hostage to fortune. They may have outfought all-comers but they also had the eternal capacity to be outthought. Vicente Del Bosque said he was shocked by the side’s “tactical anarchy” as Real Madrid put them out at the quarter-finals in 1999-2000. Ferguson wouldn’t lift the Champions League again until he had learned and agonised over his lesson. In the meantime, a magnificent team blazed a trail all too briefly.
Trophies won: Champions League 1999; English league 1999, 2000, 2001; FA Cup 1999
Managers: Alex Ferguson
Best XI: Schmeichel; Neville, Irwin, Stam, Johnsen; Keane, Scholes, Beckham, Giggs, Yorke, Cole
19. Olympique Marseille 1988-93
The 1993 bribery scandal will always sully their reputation as well as cast doubt over the rest of their dynasty. Aside from the infamous game against Valenciennes six days before the 1993 Champions League final, owner Bernard Tapie was eventually found to have influenced scores of transfer deals and refereeing appointments with his money.
But the irony is that they probably didn’t need to engage in such underhandedness. Tapie’s prior, more legitimate spending had brought the absolute highest quality in coaches and players. Chris Waddle once explained that, despite the appointment of esteemed managers like Franz Beckenbauer and Raymond Goethals, the team were so good that they ran training themselves. Certainly, the squad lists over those five years read like a who’s who of the world’s stars.
It all ensured that L’OM won the French league four years in a row in dynamic fashion as well as, eventually, the new Champions League. In between, of course, they endured a shoot-out defeat in the final to Red Star Belgrade. And it was just a pity that pain made Tapie so impatient to secure his Holy Grail.
Trophies won: Champions League 1993; French league 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992; French Cup 1989; European Cup runners-up 1991
Managers: Gerard Gili, Franz Beckenbauer, Raymond Goethals, Tomislav Ivic, Jean Fernandez
Best XI: Barthez; Angloma, Di Meco, Boli, Desailly; Sauzee, Deschamps, Pele, Waddle; Voller, Papin
18. Hamburg 1978-83
Arguably the most underrated and ignored of all European champions. But that was possibly because the 1983 victory over Juventus represented a peak when it should have been the beginning of a dynasty. Through the stellar management of Ernst Happel and commitment of steady pros like Manny Kaltz and Horst Hrubesch, Hamburg overcame the disappointment of the 1980 European Cup defeat to Nottingham Forest to win a second and third Bundesliga and return to the final. There, Happel utterly outthought Giovanni Trapattoni. The Austrian’s tactical tinkering had completely blocked Juventus’s attack before Felix Magath’s long-range strike beat them. The talismanic Hrubesch departed for Standard Liege that summer, however, and with him went the team’s will.
Trophies won: European Cup 1983; German league 1979, 1982, 1983; European Cup runners-up 1980
Managers: Branko Zebec, Ernst Happel
Best XI: Stein; Kaltz, Wehmeyer, Jakobs, Hieronymus; Rolff, Milewski, Magath; Keegan, Hrubesch, Bastrup
17. Juventus 1994-98
By reaching three consecutive Champions League finals, this Juventus team were undoubtedly the team to beat in the late ’90s. Marcello Lippi’s pressing game, tactical intuition and insistence on a cohesive team over superstars – to the detriment of Roberto Baggio’s career – created an often overwhelming style that brought three titles and a double in four years.
Often, they looked untouchable, illustrating a physicality that was scarcely believable. But the only problem with being the team to beat was that, on the two occasions they could have made history with a second Champions League, both Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid ultimately managed to defeat them. Those losses cost a truly imposing team a higher place on this list. The investigations of the Italian courts into some of the medical practices at the team, meanwhile, should leave a few questions about it too.
Trophies won: Champions League 1996; Serie A 1995, 1997, 1998; Italian Cup 1995; Champions League runners-up 1997, 1998
Managers: Marcello Lippi
Best XI: Peruzzi; Torricelli, Pessotto, Ferrara, Iuliano; Deschamps, Sousa, Zidane; Del Piero, Ravanelli, Vialli
16. AC Milan 1987-91
Far too low for a team that gave so many highs? The problem with properly analysing this Milan team, however, is where exactly those highs arrived. Admittedly, they always came on the grandest occasions. Most obviously, there was the 5-0 European Cup semi-final destruction of Real Madrid in 1989, or the 4-0 dismissal of Steaua Bucharest in that final. As Arrigo Sacchi would later say, “if you want to go down in history you don’t just need to win, you have to entertain”.
But the reality is that the emphatic nature of that entertainment created an exaggerated perception that overshadowed the fact Milan team were often a lot more unconvincing than those victories inferred. For a start, they only won a solitary domestic title. Secondly, they generally finished second more often than first in most of the competitions they entered. The routes to those European finals were also quite rocky, taking in controversial and contentious games with Red Star Belgrade, Werder Bremen and Mechelen.
And, sure, there is the rather significant caveat that the Serie A was arguably the most competitive domestic league in history at that point – particularly with the rise of Diego Maradona’s Napoli, Sampdoria and the German Inter. But the manager who succeeded Sacchi, Fabio Capello, illustrated that continental domination could be combined with domestic conquests.
Make no mistake, this Milan team was utterly awesome. Just a lot more intermittently than is often assumed.
Trophies won: European Cup 1989, 1990; Serie A 1988
Managers: Arrigo Sacchi
Best XI: Galli; Tassotti, Maldini, Costacurta, Baresi; Colombo, Rijkaard, Donadoni, Ancelotti, Gullit, Van Basten
15. Bayern Munich 1998-2003
Most people will, of course, only remember the shattering way in which they lost the 1999 final. In truth though, Bayern showed a rare resolve by recovering from the trauma of Camp Nou to reach and win another final, thereby surpassing the United side that beat them.
Indeed, they illustrated how many ghosts they had exorcised with the manner they claimed the Bundesliga that same 2000-01 season. With Schalke having won 5-3 and already celebrating at Unterhaching, Bayern were awarded an indirect free-kick for the very last action of the game as they trailed 1-0 at Hamburg. A point would have done them. So Stefan Effenberg made his own. Nonchalantly, he muttered to Patrick Andersson “Knock it in, and then we’ll go home”. The Swede did just that. Four days later, a penalty shoot-out win over Valencia brought the Champions League back to Bayern for the first time in 25 years.
As well as that European Cup, Bayern also won four out of five titles and a domestic double. Like many of the best German teams of this era, their success was based on a disciplined squad of few stars but a fantastic manager in Ottmar Hitfzeld.
In the end, it was arguably the domestic game which finished them. With the German league unable to compete financially at this point, it took Bayern another nine years to be able to compete on the pitch.
Trophies won: Champions League 2001; German league 1999, 2000, 2001, 2003; German Cup 2000, 2003; Champions League runners-up 1999
Managers: Ottmar Hitzfeld
Best XI: Kahn; Sagnol, Lizerazu, Linke, Andersson, Kuffour; Jeremies, Effenberg; Scholl, Basler, Elber
14. Ajax 1993-96
A lot of the praise being showered on the current Barcelona team is really only recycled from that which Ajax enjoyed in the mid-90s. Because there are a lot more parallels between the two teams than their shared heritage.
For a start – quite literally – a youth system that was the envy of Europe produced prototype world-class players. Their manager, Louis van Gaal, also maximised that with an almost science-based system. By perfecting his ‘circulation football’ in which position was preferred over perspiration, Ajax reached unseen levels of possession.
The results were three league titles in a row as well as a 1994-95 season which saw them win the Champions League while going undefeated in the league and scoring over 100 goals. Some old Ajax purists such as Jan Mulder claimed that Van Gaal’s system was too mechanical. But that didn’t stop the football being spectacularly sleek. Indeed, just like Barcelona, their zenith probably came against Real Madrid. In the 1995-96 Champions League group stage, they claimed a brilliant 2-0 with Patrick Kluivert in particular on fire.
Ajax would go on to lose that season’s final before the Bosman ruling started to break them up. But there were already signs that Van Gaal’s system wasn’t yet as complete as Total Football. Weaknesses were being discovered. “In the European Cup final,” Alex Ferguson later said, “Juventus had three up front and they kept playing the ball into space, exploiting the fact that the two Ajax full-backs were always looking to advance. Juventus should have killed the game by half-time.”
It would be up to others to take Van Gaal’s approach to higher levels. Ultimately though, the good died too young.
Trophies won: Champions League 1995; Dutch league 1994, 1995, 1996; Champions League runners-up 1996
Managers: Louis van Gaal
Best XI: Van der Sar; Reiziger, F de Boer, Blind; Rijkaard, Seedorf, Davids, Litmanen, Finidi, Overmars, Kluivert
13. Juventus 1976-86
Italian football’s most enduring dynasty. Certainly, Juve’s haul of six titles, two Italian cups and all three continental trophies over 10 years was the most sustained spell of success in Serie A history.
Its cornerstone was Giovanni Trapattoni’s famed discipline, which helped mould what was statistically the greatest defence Italy has ever seen. Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Antonio Cabrini and Gaetano Scirea would go on to provide the base for the 1982 World Cup victory.
But, despite current perceptions of the manager, it wasn’t all about caution. Juve’s hard-tacklers like Massimo Bonini helped protect a series of genuine flair players such as Liam Brady, Zgibi Boniek and Michel Platini to produce occasionally exquisite football.
Much like an even longer dynasty in Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, however, the only mitigating factor was a very mixed continental record. Although they achieved the unique feat of winning all three European prizes, Trapattoni’s rigidity often cost them. Most infamously, Happel completely turned the 1983 final with the simple switch of a midfielder. But even before that, Juve had gone out to Rangers in the 1978-79 first round and Anderlecht in the 1981-82 second round.
Tragically, even the Holy Grail was tainted as the 1985 European Cup was won amid the horror of Heysel.
Trophies won: European Cup 1985; Serie A 1977, 1978, 1981, 1982, 1984, 1986; Italian Cup 1979, 1983; Cup Winners Cup 1984; Uefa Cup 1977; European Cup runners-up 1983
Managers: Giovanni Trapattoni
Best XI: Tacconi; Gentile, Cabrini, Brio, Scirea; Bonini, Tardelli, Platini, Boniek; Rossi, Bettega
12. Barcelona 1988-94
The ‘Dream Team’ gave Real Madrid nightmares as they became the first Spanish side from beyond the Bernabeu to both win the Champions League and rack up a rally of Liga titles with four in succession. And the fantastic football only added to the fear.
Cohesive in every sense of the word, Barcelona 1988-94 were a mix of a Catalan core, world-class foreigners and – above all – Johan Cruyff’s modern interpretation of the Total Football philosophy he had practised as a player.
It all added up to a series of historic victories. Among their great performances, Barca won 6-0 away at Athletic Bilbao, decimated Ferguson’s United 4-0 and – in a scoreline that carries many layers of meaning – beat Real 5-0. Most of all, they ended the club’s long 37-year wait for the European Cup.
But the fantastic football also masked a great deal of fortune borne of an inherent fragility. In that sense, they were never anywhere near as emphatic as Pep Guardiola’s team. Three of their four titles were on the last day in astoundingly lucky circumstances, taking in unlikely defeats elsewhere and last-minute missed penalties.
Most infamously, their luck ran out as they were themselves destroyed 4-0 by Milan in the 1994 Champions League final. Many have since cited arrogance as an explanation for the scale of that defeat. Whatever the truth, egos certainly caused the early break-up of the team. Michael Laudrup stopped getting on with Cruyff and Romario stopped trying. As the manager would later say, “if you have a lot of stars in a team, there has to be a limit as to what each does an individual… otherwise everything ends in chaos.”
That is exactly what happened. For a time though, it provided an irresistible and occasionally unbeatable mix.
Trophies won: Champions League 1992; Spanish league 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994; Spanish Cup 1990; Cup Winners Cup 1989; Champions League runners-up 1994
Managers: Johan Cruyff
Best XI: Zubizarreta; Ferrer, Sergi, Koeman, Nadal; Guardiola, Bakero, Beguiristain, Laudrup; Stoichkov, Romario
11. Manchester United 2006-09
The culmination of Alex Ferguson’s career at Manchester United. The manager drew on many of the disparate strands of his time at the club to arguably produce his greatest team.
First of all, Ferguson summoned his famed resolve to respond to Jose Mourinho’s raising of the bar. United unexpectedly dislodged Chelsea from the top of the Premier League with points hauls around the 90 mark.
To do that, his inherent sense of adventure had created the most prolific attacking trio Old Trafford had ever seen. The manner in which Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Louis Saha/Carlos Tevez interchanged and exchanged positions also placed Ferguson as a tactical pioneer for the first time in his career.
But, by then, the acumen he had tortuously acquired over so many seasons in Europe helped set one of England’s meanest defences.
It all added up to a finely balanced team and – with three consecutive league titles, a Champions League as well another final – the most concentrated period of success in United’s history.
Ultimately, their span was ended by Spain. Real Madrid lured Cristiano Ronaldo away while Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona lifted continental football to another level with the 2-0 win in Rome.
Trophies won: Champions League 2008; English league 2007, 2008, 2009; League Cup 2009; Champions League runners-up 2009
Managers: Alex Ferguson
Best XI: Van der Sar; Brown, Evra, Vidic, Ferdinand, Hargreaves, Carrick, Giggs; Rooney, Tevez, Ronaldo