The one-nation, bi-annual Champions League final trend

The one-nation, bi-annual Champions League final trend

And so, another one-nation final and yet another all-Madrid Champions League final awaits us. Beyond the obvious delight of the Spanish capital’s fan base and their decampment to Milan for 28 May, however, another altogether modern phenomenon has reared its head again: the spectre of the biannual rematch.

Like Liverpool and Milan in 2005 and 2007 and Manchester United and Barcelona in 2009 and 2011, so it is the turn of Real Madrid and their city neighbours to pick up where they left off in Lisbon two years ago and resume hostilities in the end of season European showpiece.

As the Champions League has ensured that political, financial and footballing muscle are vested in the fortunate few, so the twin offshoots of one-nation finals and rematches have become inevitable.

The competition’s first one-nation final was an all-Spanish affair back in 2000, when Real Madrid easily edged a Parisian encounter with Valencia. Old Trafford provided the next one in 2003 when Milan took home the trophy after Andrey Shevchenko’s shoot-out penalty was the difference between his side and Marcello Lippi’s Juventus. Five years later, on a sodden evening in Moscow, John Terry’s slip ensured that Manchester United carried off the grand old trophy for the third time, completing a Premier League and Champions League double to boot.

In 2013, Wembley’s 150th anniversary staged a Teutonic encounter between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, which was the culmination of a fantastic season for both, each having spectacularly upstaged Spanish opposition in the semi-finals with Bayern larruping Barcelona 7-0 on aggregate and Dortmund sticking four past Real Madrid in the home leg of their tie. The following year, 2014, came another one-nation final and the first one-city final as both Madrid teams and their fans converged on Lisbon.

The biannual re-match is but another natural development of the concentration of power in the big four leagues. Just as the one-nation finals have all come from the top flights of the big four – English, Spanish, Italian and German – so the biannual re-matches have involved teams from three of those countries: England, Spain and Italy.

The very first instalment in this modern phenomenon was perhaps the most memorable European final of modern times: the miracle of Istanbul. The details of 25 May 2005 scarcely require repetition here, although Milan’s Jaap Stam can lay claim to have been involved in two of the greatest turnarounds in recent times.

The big Dutchman was an injury time winner in the Camp Nou with Manchester United in 1999 and six years later saw his Milan team come apart after going 3-0 up by half time in the Atatürk Stadium on the banks of the Bosporus. Andriy Shevchenko also had his own taste of the Champions League’s capacity to exact revenge when his shoot-out penalty thundered against the legs of Jerzy Dudek. At Old Trafford two years earlier, however, the Ukrainian’s sudden death spot-kick had earned Milan their sixth European Cup in Manchester.

After a Barcelona and Arsenal interregnum in the 2006 final in Paris, Liverpool and Milan reconvened in Athens for the 2007 final.  After Liverpool had denied Chelsea yet again in the semi-final, and Milan had bested Manchester United 5-3 on aggregate at the same stage, both sides fizzed sporadically in a final where Liverpool’s performance was, ironically, even better than it had been in Istanbul two years previously. Milan’s eventual 2-1 normal time victory was revenge for Istanbul and their seventh European Cup, causing Sir Alex Ferguson to anoint them the greatest European team of modern times, a scarcely concealed barb directed at those in charge at the Santiago Bernabéu.

For Liverpool, only five of Rafael Benitez’s 2005 heroes remained for the 2007 final. Alongside Gerrard, only Steve Finnan, Jamie Carragher, Xabi Alonso and Jon Arne Riise remained, while the hero of the night two years earlier, Dudek, was on the bench. For Milan, it was a similar tale: only Dida, Maldini, Pirlo, Gattuso, Seedorf and Kaká remained in situ.

Rafa Benitez’s critics point to the £230 million he spent in six years at Anfield, forgetting the Champions League he had secured from a fourth place Premier League finish the previous season. In addition, his team’s 2006 thrilling FA Cup victory in 2006 was the most exciting of the modern era. In any event, the Spaniard’s expenditure is as nothing when compared to the £719 million spent by Manchester City in the first seven years since Sheikh Mansour and the Abu Dhabi consortium gained control of the club.

In 2009, the year after another one-nation final in Moscow, Barcelona and Manchester United fought for continental supremacy in Rome. What had been billed as a heavyweight encounter between two team of roughly equal quality turned out to be a hopelessly one-sided affair. The resulting 2-0 scoreline barely does justice to Barcelona’s overall superiority.

After United had harried and pushed for the first few minutes in a display of intent, a ninth minute Samuel Eto’o goal altered the course of the game. Inexorably, United were drawn into a web of intricate, tight passing as play bypassed them. Messi’s second half goal effectively ended the game, although the result had seemed an inevitably long before that. In 2011, the same sides met up for their rematch at Wembley.

United retained van der Sar, Ferdinand, Vidić, Evra, Carrick, Giggs, Park Ji-sung and Rooney from the defeat in Rome two years earlier. Barcelona had evolved more, although the core of the team was still peopled by the same elite personnel. Xavi, Iniesta, Messi and Busquets, alongside Piqué and Valdés, remained from the team which pummelled United 2-0 in 2009.

At Wembley, with the final now switched from the traditional Wednesday evening to Saturday, Barcelona were even more dominant, running out 3-1 winners and securing European crown number four in the process. Club captain Carles Puyol came on as an 88th minute substitute, enough time in which to pick up his third winner’s medal.

How many times Govan’s famous Knight bemoaned his club’s European Cup tally, insisting that three wins was a meagre return for an institution of United’s stature. How many times, surely, he must have rued meeting the Catalans in those two finals, where had fate dealt them a different opponent, three wins might just have been converted to five.

2012 saw Roman Abramovich finally see the ultimate return on his investment, as Chelsea topped Bayern Munich in their own backyard in the Allianz Arena. A year later and that other modern phenomenon – the one-nation final – returned, this time one from Germany, as the Bundesliga’s top two concluded their epic season in London.

In Lisbon the following year, another chapter in the one-nation Champions League final was written. This time, it was not just another Spanish Civil War but a Battle of Madrid, as the one-city final was inaugurated. Atlético were seconds away from their maiden European Cup triumph on the night, when a late equaliser from Real’s Sergio Ramos dragged Los Merengues into extra-time. Diego Simeone’s team were eventually sunk 4-1 but were not disgraced.

This time, Atlético are largely fancied to get the better of their city rivals and neighbours on 28 May. With Ronaldo, at 31, now showing clear signs of fatigue, maybe it is the time for Diego Simeone to bring the trophy back to the Vicente Calderón. Having failed in 2014, and having met the same fate 40 years before that in 1974, when a late Georg Schwartzenbeck punt rocketed past Miguel Reina to secure Bayern Munich a replay, maybe Atlético have the fates on their side this time round.

In 1974, when Los Rojiblancos were thoroughly outplayed in the replay days later, Atlético coach Juan Carlos Lorenzo reflected on the cruelty of that last gasp equaliser from Schwarzenbeck in the first match, lamenting, “the Bavarians were dead”.

This could well a case of be third time lucky for Atleti. Alternatively, it could just as easily turn out to be European Cup number 11 for Real Madrid, the inaugural winners back in 1956. The 30th anniversary of the European Cup saw Steaua Bucharest overcome Barcelona in Seville’s final. As we approach the 60th, the reoccurrence of such an outcome looks increasingly remote.

Either way, what is evident is the existence of a European League of sorts, despite the protestation of those in denial. In two of the three instances of the biannual rematch, there has been a relative David pitched against a footballing Goliath. When Liverpool took on Milan in 2005, they were resolutely the underdogs.

In truth, the ethos of the boot room remained in part, as did the spirit of The Kop, together with the singular spirit of a city still steeped in its own culture: an alluring hybrid of diasporic Celticity and communitarian socialism, quite at odds with huge swathes of the country. Bill Shankly was right to feel at home there, sensing in the spirit of the place an atmosphere more akin to the native Glenbuck of his youth. Liverpool may be in England geographically, but its Celtic lineage and communal outlook place it culturally closer to Glasgow or Dublin than to London or to other major English cities. The club might have buoyed by the Texan ownership’s dollars in 2007 but, again, that was pin money in comparison with the Abramovich billions which kept Chelsea afloat.

With cash which meant that the Londoners were able to perform a kind of “Blackburn-Max”, they cruised to successive Premier League titles, although the “Big One” remained tantalisingly out of reach. Liverpool’s opponents on that sultry Turkish evening 11 years ago, Milan, were competing in their seventh final since 1989, familiar figures in their lucky all-white change strip and unequivocally part of the European aristocracy in terms of silverware, heritage and, yes, because of Silvio’s money

The footballing representatives of the great proletarian port city, Liverpool, returned to their previously accustomed place in the European upper echelon, although this time as the underdog. Some things had changed; some remained just the same. This Liverpool were more cosmopolitan than those captained by Emlyn Hughes, Graeme Souness and Phil Thompson, although the following retained its authenticity. As Jamie Carragher remarked after the semi-final, second–leg with Chelsea in 2005, “You can spend millions on the best players and invest in one of the world’s top coaches, but the one thing you can never buy is fans.”

In 2009 and 2011, Manchester United and Barcelona appeared in finals which looked like those the newly formatted Champions League had been designed for. Beyond the continent of its birth, it now looked as though the tournament was a de facto global Champions League, with two combatants designed to suit viewers from the burgeoning Asian and North American markets.

When Manchester United and Chelsea squared up to each other in Moscow in 2008, the game was billed as a contest between a club steeped in tradition, glamour and tragedy – the most intoxicating mixture of any major club – with a following that had swelled out of all proportion to Manchester’s population in the five decades since that black February day.

United’s opponents were, to the least charitable of observers, the sporting embodiment of one man’s rapacious greed and exploitation. As each club representative mounted the steps at the game’s torrential denouement to pick up their respective baubles from UEFA president Michel Platini, the difference between the naturally aristocratic Sir Bobby Charlton and the Chelsea club chairman Peter Kenyon appeared to sum up, for some, the differences between the two clubs.

There were those, on the other hand, for whom the appearance of both sides in the final in a venue two time zones east of London and Manchester was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the modern game. Engorged by foreign wealth – although even that was a chimera in United’s case – Chelsea and United were, to borrow George Galloway’s pithy line used in a different context, “two cheeks of the same arse”.

And so, on 28 May, the Madrid neighbours and rivals compete in the modern incarnation of the European Cup final, a trophy inaugurated some 60 years ago.

Maybe a biannual rematch is not so surprising after all then. Like the one-nation final, it is a result of power and privilege being granted to the most lucrative, high-profile leagues. The terms David and Goliath are relative these days, since in the trophy’s modern format the Goliaths are innumerable.

Having lived in their illustrious neighbour’s shadow, Atlético Madrid have had to extend themselves more than most. When the two teams met in Lisbon two years ago, Diego Simeone’s team had been assembled at a comparatively cut-price £64 million, almost seven times less than Real’s £422 million construction cost. Two years on, there will surely be more than a few who hope that the 60th anniversary edition of the grand old competition sees a new name go on the big old trophy.

By Gareth Bland. Follow @peakdistrictman

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