In 1993, as the new millennium neared, the European Cup evolved into the UEFA Champions League. By 1997, teams no longer needed to win their domestic leagues to qualify, and straight knockouts were replaced by group phases. Most of the great sides from the last quarter of a century won the Champions League, but not all. Here are the four best who didn’t quite claim football’s biggest trophy:
Dynamo Kiev 1998-99
Dynamo Kiev was the dominant force of the Soviet League and Eastern Europe’s best club from the 1960’s through the breakup of the USSR. The club found themselves in the Ukrainian League in the 1990’s, and although they remained dominant at home, they struggled to make an impression in Europe. By 1997, Dynamo Kiev had a new superstar in Andriy Shevchenko, who bagged 33 goals in the 1997-98 season.
Dynamo was not initially fancied in the 1998-99 Champions League, but they had a strong home-based team with Sergei Rebrov a perfect foil for Shevchenko in attack. Other stars included right back Oleg Luzhny and midfielder Vitaly Kosovskyi.
They dominated their Champions League group, playing the English Champions Arsenal off the park at Wembley. Afterwards, the club won the group at a canter, beating out Lens and Panathinaikos. They then faced defending Champions Real Madrid in the quarterfinals. At the Bernabeu, Shevchenko grabbed a crucial away goal in a 1-1 draw, and in the second leg, he scored both goals in a 2-0 victory.
Dynamo Kiev drew against Bayern Munich in the semifinal. The first leg in Kiev was a thriller, and their fast-paced play appeared to have won the day with Shevchenko scoring twice. In the second half, Bayern fought back, and two late goals secured a 3-3 draw. In Munich, a first half goal from Mario Basler saw Bayern through. Dynamo Kiev secured the domestic double, but their sparkling football got the world’s attention. The side was gradually broken up with Shevchenko leaving for Milan that summer.
Hector Cuper’s Valencia remains as the only team in European Cup history to make two or more successive finals, but never emerge with the trophy. They entered the 1999-2000 Champions League via the playoffs, having finished a distant fourth in La Liga. In the cauldron of their home, they had a fortress that proved impregnable in Europe.
However, there was far more to this side than strong home form. They had a world-class ‘keeper in Spanish international Santiago Canizares, and the steely back four was led by veteran sweeper Miroslav Dukic. The attack relied on Argentine duo Kily Gonzalez and Claudio Lopez, who won 111 Argentina caps between them. Overall, the key player was the captain, Gaizka Mendieta.
Valencia came through a tough group unbeaten, conceding just 4 goals. They advanced to a second group phase where they took 7 points from 9 at home, including a critical 2-0 victory over Fiorentina. It was in the quarterfinals where Valencia announced themselves by pounding Lazio by a score of 5-2. The semifinal saw Barcelona fall 4-1 thanks to brace from Miguel Angulo, setting up an all Spanish final with Real Madrid.
The final in Paris proved a step too far, as Raul and Morientes combined for a brace, and Valencia suffered defeat by a score of 3-0.
Most expected Valencia to follow the path of Europe’s less glamourous clubs and the side to be broken up that summer. However, Cuper reinforced his side with Argentina defender Roberto Ayala, and by the middle of the following season, he added playmaker Pablo Aimar. The club cruised through the group phases again, remaining undefeated at home, steering their way past Manchester United and Lyon among others.
The quarterfinal draw was against Arsenal, and despite Ayala giving them the lead at Highbury, a stunning solo goal from Ray Parlour handed Arsenal a 2-1 first leg lead. Again, the Mestalla proved crucial as target man John Carew bagged the only goal and passage to the last four. Valencia toughed out a scoreless draw in Leeds, and a Mendieta master class at Mestalla secured a 3-0 victory and place in a second final.
This time it was against Bayern in the San Siro Stadium. In a game dominated by spot kicks, Valencia won an early penalty which Mendieta had converted. However, Bayern leveled early in the second half when Stefan Effenberg converted from the spot. The tense final always looked like it was going to end in a shootout and so it proved. After seizing the early initiative, Valencia ran into an inspired Oliver Kahn, whose saves dragged Bayern back on terms. The shootout went to sudden death before Kahn denied Manuel Pelligrino and Valencia had missed out again.
Cuper departed from Valencia shortly after, and his replacement Rafa Benitez then took the club to two La Liga titles in three seasons.
Borussia Dortmund 2013
Dortmund had been a surprise Champions League winner in 1997 but they hadn’t won the Bundesliga title since 1992 and remained firmly in Bayern’s shadow when Jurgen Klopp took the reigns in 2008. Klopp brought a new ‘Gegenpress’ tactics to the Westfalen and Klopp’s side slowly climbed the Bundesliga. By 2011, Dortmund won the Bundesliga title. A second title quickly followed and Dortmund were suddenly Germany’s top dogs, the Westfalenstadion a place even Bayern feared.
Captained by goalkeeper Roman Wiedenfeller, Dortmund sported the dominant Mats Hummels in defence, Ilkay Gundogan marshalling midfield, Marco Reus providing the creativity whilst Polish winger Jacob Blaszczykoski’s crossing was a constant source of goals for his young countryman Robert Lewandowski. Signed for a bargain €4.5million, Lewandowski was establishing himself as Europe’s premier number nine. For the 2012-13 season a new star was emerging in Germany’s new golden boy Mario Gotze.
Yet in the Champions League Dortmund had fallen flat, finish bottom of their group whilst Bayern went on to a home final in May 2012. For the 12-13 campaign the group draw looked impossible; Real Madrid, Manchester City and Ajax. They started nervously, needing a late Lewandowski goal to secure a home win over unfancied Ajax. But the next home game saw them beat Real Madrid at the Westfalen and in the return only a late Mesut Ozil goal denied Dortmund a famous win. Still unbeaten, Dortmund won the group with a game to spare by crushing Ajax 4-1 in Amsterdam.
In the last sixteen Dortmund steamrolled Shakthar Donetsk 5-2, but looked set for a quarterfinal exit to Malaga. After a goalless draw away, Malaga were 2-1 up at the Westafalen in injury time. Reus gave Dortmund hope with a 91st minute goal, then centre back Felipe Santana found the winner on 93 minutes. The semi final would again see Dortmund face Real Madrid. In the home leg Lewandowski gave Dortmund the early lead but Ronaldo equalised before half time. In the second half, Lewnadowski hit a stunning sixteen minute hattrick to give Dortmund an unassailable 4-1 lead. Despite a defeat in the return leg, Dortmund were in the final where they inevitably faced Bayern.
Bayern had already confirmed Gotze was joining them at the end of the season and had clawed back the Bundelsiga title. The balance was tipping back in Bayern’s favour as the sides strode out for the Wembley Final against a Dortmund side missing the injured Gotze. Bayern were edging the game and scored after an hour, but Dortmund fought back and when Gundogan converted a penalty they seemed to be getting on top, but in the dying minutes Arjen Robben broke free to grab the winner and Dortmund’s dream was over.
AS Monaco 2017
The most recent side to make our list are a side whose star burned brightly but quickly faded away. Monaco had built a dynamic young side of soon to be superstars including overlapping left back Banjamin Mendy and his left-wing partner Thomas Lemar, box to box midfielder Temoue Bakayoko, the creative Bernardo Silva and the seering Kylian Mbappe upfront. Providing experience were Portguese international Joao Moutinho and revitalised striker Radamel Falcao.
At the outset of the Champions League campaign few noticed Monaco, drawn in a tough group with Tottenham, CSKA Moscow and Bayer Leverkusen. Monaco started by beating Tottenham in London and when Falcao inspired a 3-0 rout of CSKA, Monaco looked strong. When Lemar grabbed the winner in the return game with Tottenham, Monaco were through. In the last 16 they faced Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City and were regarded as underdogs. Mbappe terrorized City’s fragile defence as Monaco assumed a 3-2 lead in Manchester. City fought back to win 5-3 and were confident of seeing the tie through on the Riviera. Monaco dominated the second leg with Mbappe and Fabinho giving them the lead and with 13 minutes to go Bakayoko secured the 3-1 win.
Moanco were getting noticed and becoming the neutral’s favoruite with their exhilarating football and the game’s new superstar Mbappe. The quarter-final draw was tough, Dortmund Monaco surprised again by overpowering Borussia at the Westfalen 3-2, Mbappe again on hand to net a brace. In the second leg Mbappe and Falcao scored in the opening twenty minutes as Monaco cruised to a 3-1 win and a place in the semi finals.
Meanwhile at home, this exciting new team was not only challenging super-rich PSG for the Lique 1 title, they were winning it. After four successive titles, PSG were vanquished as Monaco stormed to their first title in seventeen years, winning 30 of their 38 games and winning by a comfortable 8 points. The Champions League draw handed them a tie agains the wily defensive veterans Juventus. In the end pragmatism triumphed over artistry with a Higuain double in the first leg enough to see Juventus through to a comfortable 4-1 aggregate win.
In the summer Monaco were pillaged, often by teams they’d bested through the season as Mbappe lead a mass exodus. But Monaco remain football’s most successful talent factory since Messi, Busquets and Iniesta emerged from La Masia over a decade earlier.
Picture Credits: Fifa, Getty, Times of Malta, Teamtalk