The Best XI Never to Win the Champions League

Building the perfect XI from the unlucky geniuses who never won Europe’s greatest prize.

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The Champions League final for 2017 is approaching, and with it comes a possible fourth crown in the offing for one Cristiano Ronaldo. If Real Madrid were to clinch their twelfth European trophy, and become the first team of the modern era to retain it, they’d make not only Ronaldo but a raft of their players multiple-time winners.

The Portuguese winger-turned-poacher already has three winners’ medals to his name, while the likes of Ramos, Kroos, Benzema and Modric all have two apiece.

But of their Italian opponents, there’s one man in particular who must be dying to get his hands on the one trophy that has eluded him for over two decades. In a career spanning 22 seasons, Gianluigi Buffon has tasted success in Serie A, Serie B, the Coppa Italia, the Supercoppa Italiana, the UEFA Cup and the World Cup — but it is the greatest club competition of them all that remains so tantalisingly out of reach.

Should he fail for the third time in his endeavours to become a European champion, he would join a supremely illustrious list of footballers never to have got their hands on club football’s most famous trophy.

You can forget Ronaldo, Messi, et al; these are the very best of the rest*.

*For the sake of argument, players eligible for the list must have played in the competition since its re-invention in 1992 as the Champions League.

GK — Gianluigi Buffon

With the likes of Schmeichel, Kahn, Casillas and Neuer already in possession of a coveted Champions League winners’ medal, there’s really only one man whose name could fit snugly amongst this pantheon of giants.

Buffon

A more reliable custodian of the goal you’ll be hard pressed to find throughout the history of world football, the 39-year-old Buffon has still yet to claim Europe’s biggest prize despite appearing 109 times in the competition.

DF — Lilian Thuram

In a career that saw him turn out in Europe for Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, the powerful French full-back – who counts Serie A, Coupe de France, Coppa Espana and Coppa Italia medals amongst his collection – and never once got his hands on a Champions League winner’s medal.

thuram

Like Buffon, he fell short at the final hurdle in 2003, when Juventus were defeated by Milan at Old Trafford, but for a man who was part of the dominant French national side of the ’90s and ’00s, it seems incredulous he never reached the illustrious summit of club football.

DF — Fabio Cannavaro

There are few footballers who win the Ballon d’Or, and there are fewer still who win it in spite of being defenders. Yet the elegant Italian, the leader of Italy’s victorious World Cup side in 2006, managed just that, becoming the fist centre-half to scoop the accolade since Franz Beckenbauer in 1976.

Cannavaro

However, although Cannavaro played for giants like Inter, Juventus and Real Madrid, the classy centre-back finished his career without a winner’s medal in the Champions League; one which would’ve completed an extremely enviable personal collection.

DF — Sol Campbell

Whereas Cannavaro embodied the elegant, graceful side of defending, Sol Campbell was all about sheer power. The hulking centre-back, who acrimoniously leapt across the North London divide from Spurs to Arsenal, was the man at the heart of a defence which became the first in Premier League history to go unbeaten in 2003/04.

sol campbell

However, it was the 2005/06 season where Campbell came so close to tasting European glory. In the final against Barcelona, the centre-back had opened the scoring for the North London side, only to see the Catalans register two late goals and take the trophy back to the Camp Nou.

MF — Michael Ballack

The legendary German midfielder, who was an integral part to the successes of Bayern Munich and Chelsea in the mid-’00s, ended a tremendously profitable career in 2012 without ever tasting glory in a European competition.

ballack

The heartbeat of every midfield he performed in, Ballack drove both Chelsea and Bayer Leverkusen onward to European finals, only to suffer defeat in both. Frustratingly, the story for Ballack was familiar on an international level: he was a runner-up in the 2002 World Cup with Germany.

MF — Daniele De Rossi

The highest-scoring midfielder in Italian post-War history, the Roman icon has had fewer chances for European glory than most on this list because of his utter devotion to boyhood club Roma.

de rossi2

Despite being on the end of a 7-1 thrashing to Manchester United in 2008, De Rossi ranks as one of the finest ball-winning midfielders of his generation, and looks finally set to assume club captaincy of Roma at the sprightly age of 34. So there’s still time to get himself off this list.

MF — Lothar Matthaus

Perhaps the man on this list who, both figurative and literally, came closest to lifting the famous trophy, Lothar Matthaus was substituted off in the ’99 final at the age of 38 with his Bayern Munich side leading an under-performing Manchester United 1-0.

matthaus

Yet, in the final 90 seconds, the legendary playmaker’s dreams of a first – and at his age, possibly last – European crown went up in smoke. For a man who remains Germany’s solitary Ballon d’Or recipient, football can seem a cruel sport.

MF — Pavel Nedved

When the Italians were dominating the football landscape in the ’90s and ’00s, playmaker Pavel Nedved was at the peak of his powers in a Juventus side gleaming with stars. Gliding across the grass with unmatched grace and poise, he’s recognised as easily the finest player the Czech Republic produced.

nedved

The 2003 Ballon d’Or winner came closest in 2003 when Juventus lost on penalties to Milan. Somehow, the UEFA Cup, Coppa Italia and Serie A medals aren’t going to make up for missing out on the big one.

FW — Ruud van Nistelrooy

For a man that claimed the Champions League golden boot in three out of four seasons during his time at Manchester United, it’s a staggering injustice Ruud van Nistelrooy never even reached a final, let alone had the chance to win the competition proper.

rvn

One of the most lethal penalty-box strikers in the world, the hulking Dutch forward made goal-scoring look the simplest thing in the world. But, despite illustrious tenures with Manchester United, PSV and Real Madrid, he never did get his hands on the elusive big-eared trophy.

FW — Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Of course, for the mercurial Swede, there is technically still time for him to scrub his name from this list, but with the clock ticking on, it might just be one step too far. Incredibly, the supremely-talented Ibrahimovic has actually never reached a Champions League final.

ibra3

Instead, he’s fought off accusations of mediocrity to hammer in 49 goals in the continent’s top club competition, which were it not for a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, would’ve won him a golden boot or two during his time with PSG.

FW — Gabriel Batistuta

Like De Rossi, Batistuta never really came within a sniff of lifting the Champions League trophy, but nonetheless made his mark in the competition with Fiorentina, where he proved he wasn’t just all about smashing goals past Italians only. Are you reading, Mark Bosnich?

batistuta

The most feared striker of his – and probably any other – generation, Batistuta was the complete forward: lightning quick, supremely athletic, strong in the air and a powerful finisher with both feet. In his prime, he was untouchable — and his talent warranted at least an appearance in a Champions League final.

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