It will be hailed as Carlo Ancelotti’s greatest achievement but victory on Saturday would owe as much to domestic failure as superiority in European competition
By Tony Mahoney
When the Champions League was expanded in 1997, there was a major outcry over the decision to include clubs that had not won their domestic titles.
How can the champions of Europe not be the champions of their own territory? It makes a mockery of the competition, said the critics.
| LEAGUE & UCL DOUBLE WINNERS
The answer from Uefa chiefs and their supporters was that cream generally rises to the top and, in most years, the winner will be the champion team of their country - either in the season of qualification or the season of competition.
As our graphic demonstrates, Uefa has generally been proved right. On only five occasions since the revamp has the competition been won by a side who were neither the current or previous domestic title holders.
To land a league and Champions League double in the same campaign is the ultimate achievement in club football and the nine teams to have achieved this since 1997/8 deserve to be ranked as the greatest of all Champions League winners.
To follow up a domestic title success with a Champions League win is also laudable – indeed, it was the entry criterion for the previous format – so, again, those sides are well worthy of the ‘Champions of Europe’ tag.
Which brings us to the five exceptions - and this is where the format critics have their “I told you so” moment. How can Europe truly hail Liverpool as its champions of 2005 when they finished fourth in the Premier League to qualify and fifth in the season of their triumph?
| CHAMPIONS THEN CL WINNERS
They are dustbin winners, much like Real Madrid (2000), AC Milan (2003, 2007) and Chelsea (2012). Coaches sacrificed domestic campaigns to prioritise the knockout stages of the Champions League.
Great achievements for the clubs involved; not so great for the reputation of Europe’s elite competition. Indeed, Chelsea held so little value to their success that Roberto Di Matteo was out of work within six months of the final.
Fast forward to 2014 and the situation is potentially even more damaging for the integrity of the competition.
Despite spending more money on transfers than any club in the history of football, Real Madrid are the third-best team in Spain. Last year, they were the second-best.
But they are favourites going into Saturday’s final against the No.1 team in Spain by virtue of their own domestic failings - which have allowed coach Carlo Ancelotti to rest key players.
|THE CUP SPECIALISTS
| CHAMPIONS IN NEITHER YEAR
|Real Madrid (2nd, 5th)
Milan (4th, 3rd)
Liverpool (4th, 5th)
Milan (3rd, 4th)
Chelsea (2nd, 6th)
Atletico Madrid, in contrast, were at full throttle until the final kick of the Liga season last Saturday prior to being crowned champions. Their top scorer, Diego Costa, is injured.
The stars are aligning for Ancelotti but, if Real Madrid do return to the pantheon of Champions League winners by claiming that elusive Decima, they will do so by re-entering the dustbin.
History will view it as little more than the triumph of a cup specialist and all who railed against the Uefa format change 17 years ago will shrug with knowing disapproval.