A History of Champions League Title Defences

This week sees the resumption of the UEFA Champions League. Since the rebranding of the old European Cup in 1992, there has not been one successful defence of the title. Many pundits believe that Barcelona are unstoppable, and it is hard to look beyond them winning it this year. Having said that, many have tried before, and failed.

Not since Milan in 1990 has a team lifted the European Cup in two successive seasons. If Barcelona want to be the first team to break that trend, they will have to do something none of these former European Champions managed to do.


Louis van Gaal must wish he had some of the mavericks he had in this great side at his disposal in his current squad. Ajax surprised everyone in 1995 by beating Champions League holders Milan three times in the same season – including in the final in Vienna. Twelve months later, it was a different story, as their squad was missing the retired Frank Rijkaard, the injured Marc Overmars and Clarence Seedorf, who had been sold to Sampdoria. Ajax reached the 1996 final in Rome, but were defeated on penalties by Juventus following a 1 – 1 draw.


Quite simply, the best team of the modern era, with four victories in the competition in the last decade. Despite this, even they haven’t managed to retain their title, despite names like Messi, Iniesta, Xavi and Ronaldinho being among the many stars to lift the trophy for the Catalan giants. Losses to Liverpool in 2007, Inter in 2010 and Chelsea in 2012 have put paid to any previous defences of their crown. Their current squad, having won the trophy last year, are currently tearing La Liga apart, having recently annihilated Gary Neville’s Valencia 7 – 0. They are favourites to win the Champions League again, and must strongly fancy their chances.

Bayern Munich

Following their 1999 heartbreak at the hands of Manchester United, Bayern triumphed against Valencia in 2001 and Borussia Dortmund in 2013. Unfortunately for the Bavarian side, both defences came to an end at the hands of eventual winners Real Madrid. In 2002, they were beaten in the quarter-finals, and in 2014, Real thrashed them 5 – 0 on aggregate.

Borussia Dortmund

Dortmund shocked the world when they claimed the trophy for the first (and so far, only) time in 1997, convincingly beating the holders Juventus 3 – 1 in the Final (and at Bayern Munich’s Olympiastadion, just for good measure). Their spell as Champions of Europe was ended at the semi-final stage the following season, losing to Real Madrid, who also beat Juventus in the Final to end a 32 year wait for the trophy.


In 2012, Chelsea finished sixth in the Premier League and the only way they would qualify for the following season’s Champions League was to win it. They duly did, for the first time in their history, by beating Bayern Munich at their Allianz Arena home in the final, emerging victorious on penalties following a 1 – 1 draw. Their defence of the trophy ended in the group phase, the first time the holders had ever gone out at that stage of the tournament, meaning they were place in the Europa League (which they also went on to win).


A 35-year wait for I Nerazzurri was ended in 2010, a season which saw them become the first Italian team to win the Treble of Serie A, Coppa Italia and the Champions League. Under José Mourinho they beat Bayern Munich in Madrid. It was another German side, Schalke 04, who ended Inter’s hopes of retaining the trophy the following season, in the quarter-finals By this time, Mourinho had left and was replaced by Rafael Benítez. The decline that followed meant that they haven’t competed in the Champions League since 2012.


Despite many people thinking of Juventus as the “Team of the 1990’s”, they actually only managed to win the competition once during this period, in 1996. Despite boasting talents such as Alessandro Del Piero, Zinedine Zidane, Christian Vieri and Edgar Davids, their victory on penalties over Ajax was not repeated. They lost the next two Champions League finals, to Borussia Dortmund and Real Madrid respectively.


The classic Final in Istanbul will live long in the memory, not just with Liverpool fans but many neutrals as well. Having been 3 – 0 down to AC Milan at half time, they pulled the score back to 3 – 3, before winning the trophy following a penalty shootout. Their hopes of a second successive victory in the competition were dashed in the first knockout stage, as Portuguese giants Benfica beat them home and away.

Manchester United

Sir Alex Ferguson has said that it is an irritation of his that he only won the Champions League twice. On both occasions he attempted to retain the trophy, he was thwarted by Spanish opposition. Following their historic 1999 win over Bayern Munich, the Red Devils were defeated in the quarter-final by eventual winners Real Madrid (United even scored one of their goals). Following their 2008 triumph over Chelsea in Moscow, Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona ran rings round a lacklustre United side in the final in Rome a year later.


In 1993, Olympique Marseille became the first club to win the European Cup since UEFA rebranded it as the Champions League. Their 1 – 0 win over Milan in Munich remains the only time a French side has been crowned European champions. Their joy was to be short lived, however, as the club were later found to have been involved in a match fixing scandal. The resulting fallout saw them eventually relegated to the second division. They were also banned from defending the trophy, and replaced by Monaco. They were, however, not stripped of the Champions League title.


A club with a proud history in Europe’s premier competition, three of Milan’s seven victories have come since the rebranding. Their magnificent 4 – 0 win over Barcelona in Athens in 1994 was followed by a damp squib of a final against Ajax the following year, which the Dutch side won 1 – 0. In 2003, Milan beat Juventus on penalties following a stale 0 – 0 draw, but suffered a surprise defeat in the following campaign’s quarter-final against Deportivo La Coruña. In 2007, Milan gained revenge against Liverpool by winning 2 – 1, but their bid to retain their crown was ended at the hands of Arsenal, whose 2 – 0 victory in the San Siro sent the holders crashing out in the first knockout round.


The 2003 – 04 Champions League saw a number of heavily fancied sides suffer an earlier exit. Inter didn’t make it out of their group, and Juventus, Bayern Munich and Manchester United were all eliminated in the first knockout round. Barcelona hadn’t even qualified for the competition. By the semi-finals, Arsenal’s “Invincibles” and even Real Madrid had been knocked out.

The final saw Porto beating Monaco 3 – 0 (a game which many believe was an interview for the right to replace Claudio Ranieri as Chelsea manager). Within days of Porto’s victory, their manager José Mourinho was announcing himself to the English media as the self-proclaimed Special One. It wasn’t long before most of their stars were poached by Europe’s elite clubs. Nobody was especially surprised when Inter eliminated Porto in the first knockout round the next year, ending their reign as European champions.

Real Madrid

1998 saw Real end a 32-year wait for the trophy, having monopolised it during the 1950’s, with a 1 – 0 victory over Juventus in Amsterdam. Their defence was halted in the quarter-final at the hands of Dynamo Kiev, but they only had to wait a year for further glory. The 2000 final saw an all-Spanish affair with Valencia, which Madrid won 3 – 0. Bayern Munich put paid to Real’s hopes of retaining the title, eliminating them in the semi-final before going onto win it themselves.

With the “Galácticos” era now in full swing, the team of Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane went on to claim a third victory in five years by beating German side Bayer Leverkusen 2 – 1 at Glasgow’s Hampden Park in 2002. With Brazilian superstar Ronaldo added to the attack following that year’s World Cup, Real were fully expected to add a second successive crown to their trophy cabinet. This didn’t happen, however, as Juventus eliminated them in the semi-final to set up an all-Italian showpiece against Milan at Old Trafford.

Twelve long years passed before Real would claim “La Décima”, winning a record tenth European crown against their city rivals Atlético Madrid in 2014. When it came to defending their title, it was once again the “Old Lady” of Italian football, Juventus, who stopped them in the semis. To add insult to injury, the Turin side went down to Real Madrid’s biggest rivals, Barcelona, in the final.

Final Thought

Given the quality of some of the teams who have lifted the European Cup over the last 25 years, it is quite incredible that nobody has managed to successfully defend it. Many regard the Barcelona team managed by Pep Guardiola as the finest club side ever to grace a pitch – yet they never even reached two successive finals, let alone retain the trophy. If the Catalan giants manage that this year, those opinions may change.