As Real Madrid and Liverpool preparing to battle each other for what seems like the 100th time, there’s still a certain sense of awe around the Los Blancos. After all, their run to the final has felt like it has come through some supernatural force but has any team had a tougher run?
Imagine if someone told you, after the second group-stage game in the Champions League this season, that Real Madrid would be in the final alongside Liverpool. Now bear in mind, this was just after Sheriff Tiraspol, debutants in the Champions League, had beaten the Los Blancos. Many would call said person nuts, some would call them insane and most would just walk past them, ignoring crazy ideas.
But then imagine that someone told you that Real Madrid would reach the final after they beat Paris Saint-Germain, Chelsea and Manchester City in second-leg comeback wins and all three in sensational moments. Crazy right? It’s also, arguably, the toughest run any team on this planet has had to make a final in a long-time. Which made one wonder, has there been a side with a tougher or equally tough run?
That led to collating data from every Champions League, and only Champions league, winner’s run to a final and thus it led us to this. Five winning sides with a tough or equally tough run to a Champions League final over the last three decades aka since UEFA changed the name. However, credit does go to more than a few runner-ups including Bayer Leverkusen in 2001/02, AC Milan in 2004/05, Arsenal a year later, Liverpool in 2006/07, Atletico Madrid in 2013/14, Juventus a year later and Tottenham in 2018/19.
PS: This is a two-parter. First, this is purely based on the opinion of the writer, so if there’s any problem with the choices, blame him. Second, it won’t be ranked because all six teams did exceptionally well but should you want to rank it, go ahead and do so.
Manchester United’s road to the 1999/99 final (winner):
Everyone remembers this one and we all know why we remember this one especially given how iconic the final has become in the years since. But Manchester United’s run to the final was no joke at all especially given the fact that they were the underdogs. The Red Devils started off in a tough group alongside Barcelona, Bayern Munich and Brondy IF, and things didn’t go well.
They drew their first two games, against Barca and Bayern, before thrashing Brondy twice by a combined 11-2 scoreline. However, back-to-back daws against Barca and Bayern again meant that the United barely scraped through in second place. It handed them a quarter-final tie against Inter Milan and while it may not have been the toughest Inter, they had won the UEFA Cup the season prior.
Still the Red Devils made tough work, winning the first-leg 2-0 before drawing the second leg thanks to an 88th minute equaliser from Paul Scholes. Things didn’t get easier after that as they were pitted against Juventus in the semis and a tough Juventus side. They had won the Serie A the season before and had the likes of Didier Deschamps, Flippo Inzaghi, Alessandro Del Piero, Edgar Davids, and a certain Zinedine Zidane.
Yet somehow, the Red Devils, thanks to a 90+2 minute equaliser from Giggs, managed to walk away from the first leg with a 1-1 draw. The second leg was the true test as Juventus had scored an away goal in the first but despite going 2-0 down within 11 minutes, United responded and 83 minutes into the game, they had a 3-2 lead and were going to the final. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bayer Leverkusen’s road to the 2001/02 final (runner-up):
The only runner-up to make this list, Leverkusen’s run to the final was tough as nails and in other circumstances, they could have won the trophy. But c’est la vie although things started off rather well for the German side with them losing just twice in their first group stage. That was a 2-1 loss to Barcelona and a 4-2 loss to Olympique Lyon which earned them a spot in the second group stages.
This was during the four-year spell where UEFA experimented with two group stages although things became tougher here. One win in their opening three games, including a 4-0 loss to Juventus, but a turnaround in their last two games, thanks to a combined 6-2 win over Juventus and Deportivo La Coruna, meant that Leverkusen topped their second group.
However, it pitted them against Liverpool and the Reds beat them in the first-leg, and Leverkusen had no answer until the second leg, which was when Michael Ballack stepped up. The German scored twice alongside goals from Lucio and Dimitar Berbatov which meant that despite Liverpool comeback, Leverkusen were through. Manchester United were up next and it proved to be a lovely battle as four goals in the first-leg, aka a 2-2 draw, meant that it would be decided in the second.
United score first there but Leverkusen responded just before half-time and shut-up shop to ensure that they would win on away goals. That turned out to be the case as they reached the final only to have Real Madrid stand in their way. Raul opened the scoring ten minutes into the game, Lucio equalised four minutes later and then that Zidane volley turned the tide Real’s way. Add that to Casillas walking in twenty minutes from time and making a string of big saves, it meant the tie was over.
Liverpool’s road to the 2004/05 final (winner):
Much like Manchester United’s infamous 1998/99 final, we all know what happened in this particular final as well. But as iconic as that comeback was, Liverpool’s run to Istanbul was equally exceptional given the teams they faced. However, two losses and a draw meant that the Reds finished second in their group behind AS Monaco, above Olympiacos on only goal-difference.
Things got slightly easier as they beat Bayer Leverkusen, over two-legs, by a combined 6-2 scoreline and thus set-up a tie against Juventus. The Turin giants proved to be far tougher than anyone expected as a 2-1 home win and an incredible defensive performance in the second leg, ensured a semi-final berth against Chelsea. The Blues, at this point, had Claude Makelele, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and an array of talent which made them a tough test especially with Jose Mourinho at the helm.
Yet after a goalless first-leg, a Luis Garcia goal in the second was more than enough to ensure Rafael Benitez’s side a place in the final despite Chelsea throwing everything at them. A final in Istanbul against the mighty AC Milan but we all know what happened there.
Bayern Munich’s road to the 2012/13 final (winner):
Having only beaten Borussia Dortmund twice over the course of the season, Bayern Munich still walked into the 2013 Champions League final as favourites. They had already lifted both the league title and the DFB-Pokal, and were thus on course to secure a treble but Dortmund stood in their way. However, there is a reason why they had the favourites tag because the Bavarian giants had thrived over the course of the Champions League season.
They strolled through their group-stage as they topped it with 13 points, level with Valencia, and were pitted against Arsenal. A 3-1 win at the Emirates set up a teasing second-leg and the Gunners nearly gave Bayern a fright after Olivier Giroud’s early goal. Yet, Bayern held on and despite a late goal from Koscienly, the Bavarians were through. Juventus were in their way next but despite Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and everyone else, the Old Lady simply couldn’t cope.
A 4-0 win over two-legs set-up a semi-final tie against the mighty Barcelona but once again, Bayern steam-rolled past them in the first leg. Four goals meant that Barcelona had it all to do in the second but they couldn’t because Bayern didn’t take their foot off the pedal. They score thrice in the second leg and that placed Borussia Dortmund in their way. The first-half was exciting but nothing compared to the second as Bayern secured their treble thanks to a heartbreaking, late winner from Arjen Robben.
Barcelona’s road to the 2014/15 final (winner):
Two years after that 7-0 thrashing handed onto them by Bayern Munich, Barcelona lifted their own treble for the third time in less than ten years. It started off well too as they lost just once in the group stages to seal first-place and thus the “easier tie” in the Round of 16. That turned out to be Manchester City and the La Liga giants walked past Manuel Pellegrini’s side.
A 2-1 win in the first leg, at the Etihad, combined with a 1-0 staunch defensive performance at the Camp Nou ensured a place in the quarter-final. It pitted them against PSG for the second time that season but unlike their group stage loss to the Parisians, Barcelona had their number. A 3-1 win in Paris and a 2-0 win at home earned them a place in the semis and against Bayern Munich.
But this time, the Catalans were ready as they eased past the Bavarian giants 3-0 in the first leg at the Camp Nou. Yet despite Bayern scoring thrice in the second-leg, a Neymar brace meant that Bayern would need a miracle to overcome the difference. They didn’t get it and Barcelona were in the final, facing Italian giants Juventus.
It proved to be a far tougher contest than the La Liga side anticipated as Ivan Rakitic’s opener was cancelled out by Alvaro Morata just after half-time. But then two goals from Luis Suarez (68th) and Neymar (90+2) ensured that the trophy would go to Spain.
Real Madrid’s road to the 2017/18 final (winner):
Two Champions League trophies in a row, a La Liga title to boot and Real Madrid were at the peak of their powers in the modern era. No team seemed even remotely capable of beating the Los Blancos as they strolled their way towards footballing history. But from that incredible three-peat, their road to the 2018 final had to be arguably their toughest test, until now that is.
They were placed in a group alongside Borussia Dortmund, Tottenham and APOEL Nicosia but only Spurs managed to take points off Zinedine Zidane’s side. It ensured that Real wouldn’t finish first but second instead and thus get to face the mighty PSG and their latest superstar in Neymar. But the Parisians proved to be no match for Zidane’s side as they beat them 5-2 on aggregate. Juventus were up next in the quarter-final and once again, the Old Lady struggled.
A 3-0 win in the first leg in Turin and thus it meant that Real had the advantage going into the second. But Juventus nearly stunned them as three goals in 61 minutes had levelled the tie and sent it to extra-time but Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas. A 90+7 penalty, after Gigi Buffon was sent off, meant that Real Madrid had their semi-final berth. Things became even tougher against Bayern Munich but despite an early goal, the Los Blancos had a 2-1 lead in the first-leg.
Bayern did manage to score twice in the second-leg to ensure that the away goals meant nothing but so did Real Madrid as they walked away as 4-3 winners on aggregate. It set up, a now infamous, final against Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool and after Mohamed Salah walked off injured, many believed it was over. But Karim Benzema’s opener was cancelled out by Sadio Mane before Gareth Bale walked on for the Gareth Bale show yet again.