Twenty six and counting.
Barcelona’s exit from the Champions League on Wednesday night at the hands of Atlético Madrid means Milan’s victory over Benfica in May 1990, thanks to a solitary goal from Frank Rijkaard, was the last time the reigning European champions managed to retain the trophy affectionately known in some quarters as ‘Old Big Ears’.
Less than a month ago, it seemed unthinkable that Luis Enrique’s side would not at least be in contention to break the vicious cycle that has enveloped the holders since that balmy night in Vienna almost a quarter of a century ago. Arsenal had just been dispatched 5-1 on aggregate as Barça’s feted El Tridente forward line of Lionel Messi, Luis Suárez and Neymar each scored at the Camp Nou. Surely this was the year the curse would finally end?
Having thrashed the 1986 champions Steaua Bucharest the previous year (perhaps fittingly in a final held at Barcelona’s home stadium), Milan’s victory in 1990 under Arrigo Sacchi was hardly a surprise. A team boasting the talents of the Dutch trio Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten and Ruud Gullit and a commanding defence comprising Mauro Tassotti, Franco Baresi, Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini were heavy favourites to join the long list of clubs to have won back-to-back European titles before then.
In the old days, it was a common occurrence. Real Madrid (five), Benfica (two), Internazionale (two), Ajax (three), Bayern Munich (three), Liverpool (two), Nottingham Forest (two) had all been there before Milan. But after Sacchi’s side, who were also beaten to the Serie A title the previous season by Diego Maradona’s Napoli, were eliminated in the quarter-finals 4-1 on aggregate by Marseille, the sequence was broken. The French side ended up reaching the final, only to lose on penalties against Red Star Belgrade in Bari.
Twelve months later, after the Yugoslavs were eliminated at the inaugural Champions League quarter-final group stage, Barcelona claimed their first European title after beating Sampdoria at Wembley. But their attempts to retain the trophy the following season were ended in the second round against CSKA Moscow, meaning they didn’t even qualify for the group stage. Marseille went on to beat Milan in the final thanks to Basile Boli’s winning goal but were thrown out of the following season’s competition after president Bernard Tapie was found guilty of bribing the French club Valenciennes FC into throwing a league game.
That left the way clear for Milan to claim a third title in just five seasons by thrashing Barcelona 4-0 in Athens. Fabio Capello’s side made it all the way to the final in Vienna the next year but were shocked by Patrick Kluivert’s winner for Louis van Gaal’s young Ajax team, thus beginning a run of near misses over the next three seasons that saw the previous year’s winners defeated at the final hurdle. First Ajax were unable to repeat their heroics, losing out on penalties against Juventus before Borussia Dortmund shocked the Italian giants with a 3-1 victory in the final in Munich.
Dortmund made it to the semi-final in 1998 but were beaten by Real Madrid, who went on to defeat Juve in the final, only to be dumped out of the 1999 edition by an Andrei Shevchenko-inspired Dynamo Kyiv. Manchester United’s attempts to retain the trophy in the first edition of the new century also fell flat, after Real Madrid beat them in the quarter-finals on their way to recording their eighth title in 2000.
Real took over the mantle of champions after beating Valencia in the final but were eliminated by Bayern in the last four the next year. However, their hopes of emulating the 1974-76 winning teams were dashed by Real the following season in the quarter-finals. They went on to win another crown before a 4-3 defeat on aggregate against Juventus in the last four in 2003 set up an all-Italian final, with Milan eventually triumphing on penalties.
The holders then failed to get anywhere near retaining their title for the next five seasons as Milan (twice), Porto Liverpool, and Barcelona were eliminated at the quarter-final stage or worse. After their victory against Chelsea in the all-English final in 2008, Manchester United were on the brink of making history when they met Barcelona in the final in Rome 12 months later. But the Catalans – beginning a spell of dominance under Pep Guardiola – won 2-0.
José Mourinho’s Internazionale stopped Barça in the semi-finals the following season yet the Portuguese’s departure to join Real Madrid saw the Italians beaten by Schalke in the last eight. Barcelona were again the main beneficiaries as they defeated United in the final once more but Chelsea’s shock victory in the 2012 semi-final ended hopes of consecutive titles. Within months, they had become the first team to leave the competition as title holders, with Bayern gaining revenge in 2013 for losing the final in their home stadium 12 months earlier by defeating Dortmund to claim the trophy. They were eliminated the following season in the semi-finals by the eventual winners Real Madrid and, incredibly, the cycle was repeated yet again 12 months later as Juventus made it to the final thanks to a 3-2 aggregate win, only to lose out in the final against Barcelona.
“I think it’s difficult to win the Champions League because it is more and more competitive compared to the past,” Carlo Ancelotti, who was a midfielder in the 1989 and 1990 Milan sides and has also won the competition three times as a manager, told Goal.com after Barcelona’s elimination on Wednesday.
“When we won it in 1989 and 1990 there were not a lot of games to reach the final and to win, and not a lot of teams. In the past, there was only one team for each country who could play in the Champions League and now there are three or four teams from each country. Because of this, it is more competitive and more difficult to win it.”
If even a side hailed by some as the greatest to grace a football pitch couldn’t do it, we may be waiting a long time.
European Cup holders – how they have fared since 1990
Finalists (4): Milan 1995, Ajax 1996, Juventus 1997, Manchester United 2009.
Semi-finalists (8): Borussia Dortmund 1998, Real Madrid 2001, Real Madrid 2003, Milan 2004, Barcelona 2010, Barcelona 2012, Bayern Munich 2014, Real Madrid 2015.
Quarter-finalists (7): Milan 1991, Red Star 1992, Real Madrid 1999, Manchester United 2000, Bayern Munich 2002, Internazionale 2011, Barcelona 2016.
Last 16 (5): Barcelona 1993, Porto 2005, Liverpool 2006, Barcelona 2007, Milan 2008.
Group stages (1): Chelsea 2013.
Disqualified (1): Marseille 1994.
This article was written by Ed Aarons, for theguardian.com on Thursday 14th April 2016 13.44 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010