The Best XI Never to Win the Champions League

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

A bittersweet take on United’s season thus far

United fans of the past three decades have enjoyed a pretty good life, what with Sir Alex Ferguson sweeping aside all that stood before him, conquering both England and Europe with a swagger that garnered as much ire as it did admiration.

He built and re-built teams that were as dynamic as they were dominant, familiarising Manchester United fans with success. Success that many of them hadn’t witnessed since the heyday of Sir Matt Busby.

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So, it’s with the last 25+ years in mind that Manchester United fans have had to temper their expectations. David Moyes floundered beneath a deluge of expectation; Louis van Gaal — despite winning the FA Cup — alienated supporters with his stagnant brand of possession football; and so, following these disappointments, faith was placed in a man who had long coveted the head role at Old Trafford.

The thing is, in spite of all his undoubted brilliance, José Mourinho hasn’t exactly restored the club to its winning ways.

There is certainly an arrogance about United fans — even being a fervent one myself — that demands success, as if it is some God-given right, rather than earned through graft, guile and sheer bloody-mindedness.

With Mourinho, there is the expectation success will follow, especially when the club shells out in excess of £130 million in transfer fees for some of the footballing world’s most promising names.

But with United stuttering through an indifferent start to the season, what’s missing? With the likes of Ibrahimovic, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Rooney, Mata and De Gea, Mourinho has a glittering squad at his disposal, yet this behemoth of a club languishes in 7th place, having been soundly beaten by Chelsea, outplayed in the Manchester derby and staunchly boring the entire of Merseyside to death.

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First off — play people in their actual positions

As anyone who’s played football to any half-decent level will testify, attuning your game to a host of different positions is tricky. Sure, there are the gifted few for whom versatility is second nature, but understanding the tactical and positional differences of a winger and a striker take time to comprehend.

And that’s going some way to explaining United’s sheer lack of both excitement and proficiency this season.

It may be a sign of the lack of genuinely talented wingers in the squad, but sticking Marcus Rashford out on the flanks is doing nobody any favours. With his fearless nature and direct running, the last place you want the young England star is 30 yards from goal and approaching the byline rapidly. The same goes for Anthony Martial.

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Their frightening pace would be far better serviced through the middle, but not necessarily at Ibrahimovic’s expense. Late on in games, tired legs are going to have a hell of a time keeping up with Rashford and Martial.

Concerning the wide areas, United have a man in Henrik Mkhitaryan who was at the top of his game last season; drifting in off the right-wing to register 11 goals and 15 assists in the Bundesliga as Dortmund finished runners-up.

But it seems as though this United squad has an abundance of talent, all of whom want to play in that coveted ‘number 10’ role — Rooney, Mata, Pogba — and who are similarly bringing a distinct lack of balance to the side.

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Let’s take Paul Pogba. Undoubtedly he possesses a wealth of talent, but he has the positional awareness of a man registered blind. His inclusion in the side warrants a solid base in midfield, potentially robbing the side of creativity going forward. There’s no scope to play Pogba in a midfield two — he too often leaves his partner woefully exposed.

Which brings us neatly onto the next point:

Mourinho needs to establish his first-choice XI — quickly

Unfortunately for United fans, Mourinho has too often got his starting XI and tactical set-up completely wrong for the big games.

Struggling to piece together the jigsaw of how the fuck you fit Paul Pogba in this United side, Mourinho has frequently opted for the lumbering figure of Marouane Fellaini in centre midfield. A curious charge when you consider the big Belgian’s talents as a footballer: he can head the ball. Aaaaand that’s about it.

In years gone past, United have dominated the English and, to a lesser extent, the European scenes thanks in no small part to their strength in centre midfield. Keane, Scholes, Butt, Carrick, Ince would all walk into today’s side without a concern.

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But if you insist on playing Pogba, who anchors the midfield? Do you entrust the energetic and criminally-underrated Ander Herrera, sacrificing his creative instincts in the name of solidarity? Or do you trust in Michael Carrick who, although is certainly into the winter of his career, has a proven time and time again he has the ability to dictate play from the centre of the park.

And what of Morgan Schneiderlin? The aggressive ball-winner seems to have been entirely overlooked alongside Bastian Schweinsteiger when both can offer more consistency in the centre of the pitch that Fellaini.

But that’s not the only area of the pitch Mourinho is struggling with. The right-back berth seems to have been filled, albeit we pray only temporarily, by Antonio Valencia; a man whose ability to defend is less compelling than his attempts to speak English. So many times the Ecuadorian is caught out by even the merest hint of intelligence in an opposition winger; sure, most won’t beat him for pace, but the man doesn’t seem to know what offside is!

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Similarly, Mourinho’s proclivity for playing Young and Lingard in important fixtures beggars belief. These are two men who epitomise one of the bleakest problems that English football is facing: we seem to appreciate a lack of actual footballing talent as long as it is compensated for by a willingness to “put a shift in”.

Since when did top-level international footballers rely solely on their ability to work hard? Carlos Tevez works bloody hard, but he’s also a terrific goal threat to boot; the same goes for Luis Suarez, who never gives defenders a moment’s rest. Cafu would steam up and down Brazil’s right flank in the 90s, yet he could cross a ball like no one’s business and tackle like a bull.

Panicking is going to help absolutely no one

Football fans are fickle, and perhaps none more so than Manchester United fans, many of whom expected a continuation of the club’s phenomenal success once Fergie had waved a fond farewell in 2013.

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Moyes’ head was called for extremely early on, while van Gaal hardly lasted much longer before the masses turned against him. Already there are rumblings of disquiet amongst the United faithful who seem to have once again rolled out that old chestnut “playing the United way”.

Well, what is the United way? Rampaging wingers and an attitude that boldly proclaims, “You score four, we’ll score five”? See how far that gets you against Barcelona! The modern game is changing and so is the entire landscape of football.

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Sir Alex Ferguson was one of the last old-school managers, who ruled the club from top to bottom, and in José Mourinho, United, at least, have a man of similar ilk. Players desire to play for him; they want to impress him. And that’s what the club needs.

Scholes, Giggs, the Nevilles, Keane — all players for whom playing for Manchester United meant something. United fans were blessed indeed to witness such a crop of players come through their club at one time, and it’s a feat that will likely never be repeated, but United still possess the tools to re-establish themselves at the pinnacle of the game.

This season has been lukewarm to say the least, but it has produced moments of startling potential. So despite the current lowly state of affairs United find themselves in, with City dropping points, Chelsea’s slow start still hampering them and Liverpool’s complete inability to beat anyone in the bottom five a title challenge really isn’t that far off.