Champions League Final: Ranking Every Final of the 21st Century

champions league final

For the 22nd Champions League final of this century, we get the eighth featuring teams from the same nation. Manchester City have probably been the best team in Europe this season, having seen off the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Borussia Dortmund to reach a first-ever Champions League final. Chelsea, meanwhile, hit the jackpot with a managerial change in January, and both Madrid giants fell victim on the Blues’ path to a first Champions League final in nine years.

Ranking Every Champions League Final of the 21st Century

The Champions League final, over the years, has produced variety. From tactical battles to managerial match-ups, not to mention the outcome of the matches, it’s not uncommon that there are levels of caution in a Champions League final. Concede and you’re suddenly in a race to equalise and you leave yourself exposed, a red flag in a one-off game.

But sometimes a Champions League final is a game worthy of the name, as some amount of caution goes out of the window and intensity and action are the order of the day. Either way, levels of drama are expected. With Chelsea and City to meet in Porto, here are the Champions League final games of the 21st century ranked:

21. AC Milan v Juventus (2003) – All-Italian Champions League Final

The popular notion is that games in the Champions League final featuring teams of the same nation are less entertaining. Sometimes, that notion is disproved, but in 2003, it was very much the case when Juventus and AC Milan met in the final at Old Trafford.

Juventus were less potent in attack with talisman Pavel Nedved suspended, and it all made for a disappointing 120 minutes at the Theatre of Dreams. Milan triumphed on penalties, but even that featured a number of mishits.

20. Liverpool v Tottenham Hotspur (2019)

Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur also vindicated that Champions League final scepticism of same-country clubs in 2019. Both sides made their way into the final in extraordinary circumstances. Liverpool pulled off a miracle against Barcelona in the semi-final second leg, while Spurs followed the dramatic quarter-final with Manchester City with a comeback against Ajax in the semis.

But if their journeys to the Champions League final were dramatic, the showpiece itself in Madrid wasn’t so much. Liverpool got off to the perfect start with a Mohammed Salah penalty after two minutes, but the rest of the game moved at a dreary pace. And when Divock Origi added a second for Liverpool in stoppage time, it sealed the win and also put us out of our collective misery.

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19. Paris Saint-Germain v Bayern Munich (2020)

PSG meeting Bayern Munich in Lisbon last August was by no means the worst Champions League final you’d see. It was also the showpiece game in what became a straight shoot-out, as Covid restrictions meant the quarter-final and semi-final games were one-legged in a neutral ground. PSG had overcome Atalanta in the last eight in dramatic fashion before dispatching RB Leipzig in the semis. Bayern, meanwhile, ruthlessly put eight past Barcelona, and then beat surprise semi-finalists Lyon.

But the 2020 Champions League final – the only one in this century to have ended 1-0 – was played in front of zero fans in Lisbon. As understandable as that was, the eerie atmosphere is a minus.

18. Inter Milan v Bayern Munich (2010)

Another Champions League final appearance for Bayern Munich, this time against Inter Milan in Madrid. It was the clash of would-be treble winners as both sides had won a domestic double coming into this game. The victors would be Inter, under Jose Mourinho, who’d win their first Champions League title in 35 years, thanks to a Diego Milito double.

It was a classic Jose Mourinho display from the Nerazzurri, back when that style was at its most effective. But it was made for a rather tepid game overall.

17. Real Madrid v Valencia (2000)

The first Champions League final of the 21st century was an all-Spanish affair, as Real Madrid met Valencia in Paris. Valencia had seen off Lazio in the last eight while beating fellow Spaniards Barcelona in the semis. Real Madrid, meanwhile, were going through something of a tough spell in the league, as they sacked John Toshack in mid-season and finished fifth.

But in Europe, they were on the up. First, they beat Manchester United in the quarter-final, thanks to a 3-2 win at Old Trafford. Then they saw off Bayern Munich – the side who beat them 4-2 earlier in the first group stage – in the last four. Real ultimately made light work of the final, thanks to goals from Fernando Morientes, Steve McManaman and Raul in a 3-0 win.

16. Bayern Munich v Chelsea (2012) – Chelsea’s Champions League Final Magic

The stage was set for Bayern Munich in 2012. They had beaten Real Madrid in the semis and set up a chance to right the wrongs of the 2010 defeat, and on home soil too. But one thing they didn’t seem to account for was Chelsea’s sheer force of will and luck. The Blues had pulled off a miracle against Napoli in the last 16, after losing the first leg. Then they withstood 180 minutes of a Barcelona barrage in the semi-final, despite playing most of the second leg with ten men.

And Chelsea had one last miracle in them in Munich, as despite going a goal down with less than ten minutes left, a Didier Drogba header forced extra time, where a penalty save from Petr Cech forced a penalty shoot-out. Chelsea’s first-ever Champions League triumph was a dramatic one, even though it distracted us from the fact the game in itself was less than enjoyable.

15. Liverpool v Milan (2007)

In 2007, Milan and Liverpool met in a rematch of that final two years earlier (which will feature here too). Unlike the game in Istanbul, it was Milan who would come out victorious, thanks to a double from Pippo Inzaghi.

But unlike the Istanbul final, this was less enjoyable and far less dramatic. Not that Milan would mind, though.

14. Atletico Madrid v Real Madrid (2016)

The 2016 final was Mark II of a Champions League final meeting between city rivals Real and Atletico Madrid. Two years after their first final clash in Lisbon, it was Real Madrid who would this time score first from a defender (Sergio Ramos), and then concede a late equaliser to force extra time.

This 2016 meeting in Milan would go all the way to penalties, where a Juanfran miss helped Real Madrid win the first of three successive European titles. Like the Milan v Liverpool meetings, this second one was less dramatic and less entertaining.

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13. Valencia v Bayern Munich (2001) – Another Champions League Final Setback for Valencia

Another Champions League final in Milan, this time between Valencia and Bayern Munich. This clash was far from entertaining – there were penalties scored from both sides early in each half, and a miss from Bayern in the first – especially with a second-half that was quiet, to say the least.

But this 2001 final is high up because for both sides, it represented a chance to make amends for past failures. Valencia had lost the previous final to Real Madrid, while Bayern Munich had suffered that horror loss to Manchester United in 1999. Plus, there was the proper drama of penalties, where miss followed miss before that final save gave Bayern Munich a first Champions League title in 24 years.

12. Real Madrid v Juventus (2017)

In 2017, Real Madrid were looking to become the first side to retain the European Cup since Milan in 1990. Juventus, meanwhile, were chasing a first Champions League triumph since 1996, as both sides met in Cardiff.

It would turn out to be Real Madrid’s day, quite comfortably, as they ran out 4-1 winners at the Millennium Stadium. It proved to be a masterclass display from Real Madrid, but this final is ranked lower due to the shoddy nature of Juventus’ performance.

11. Porto v Monaco (2004)

Undoubtedly the most surprising Champions League final line-up this century, it is also one we might never see again thanks to the increasing imbalance on the continent. Such was the surprising nature of the Champions League in 2003/04 that the biggest side in the semi-final was a then-developing Chelsea, who had just been bought by Roman Abramovich. Porto and Monaco played their part in that, the former knocking out Manchester United in the last 16, while Monaco pulled off a comeback against Real Madrid in the quarter-finals.

Both teams would meet in Gelsenkirchen with then-budding young managers, one Jose Mourinho against one Didier Deschamps. But it would be Mourinho’s Porto who would come out on top, a 3-0 win cementing him as the next big thing on the continent, and earning him that move to Chelsea.

10. Barcelona v Manchester United (2009)

Unlike the Liverpool-Milan and the Atletico-Real matchups, the Barcelona-United Champions League final meetings were one in which the first one wasn’t as good as the second.

Both sides met in Rome, and after an incredibly fast start from United against a depleted Barcelona side, it was the Spaniards who would go on to take control of the final, winning comfortably in Pep Guardiola’s first season as the club’s manager.

9. Real Madrid v Liverpool (2018) – Bale and Karius Decide Champions League Final

The Champions League final between Real Madrid and Liverpool in Kyiv in 2018 was far from the best game. But it’s probably the most typical final, as it had proper dramatic moments. First up was the Sergio Ramos and Mohammed Salah moment, which meant the latter had to go off in the first half.

There were the Loris Karius moments, as the Liverpool goalkeeper made two costly mistakes for two of Real’s three goals. Then there’s the Gareth Bale overhead kick, part of his game-changing brace as Real sealed a third Champions League in a row.

8. Barcelona v Juventus (2015)

The 2015 Champions League final was the first meeting in this competition between Juventus and Barcelona since 2003. Such had the times changed that Luis Enrique, one of Barcelona’s main men in 2003, was the manager 12 years on.

In 2015, Barcelona boasted the potent trio of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Neymar, who scored over a hundred goals between them. All three would play their part in this entertaining final as they ran out 3-1 winners in Berlin.

7. Real Madrid v Bayer Leverkusen (2002)

The 2002 final will always be remembered for that goal from Zinedine Zidane. It was a goal which, in 2007, ITV rated as the greatest Champions League goal of all time. Zidane’s goal had restored Real’s lead in Glasgow after Lucio cancelled out Raul’s opener.

But this Champions League final was also noteworthy for the performance of Iker Casillas, who came off the bench for Real Madrid and made a string of saves to help them to a third Champions League title in five years.

6. Barcelona v Arsenal (2006) – Arsenal’s Disappointing Champions League Final

2006 was Arsenal’s first – to date their only – Champions League final appearance, as they met Barcelona in Paris. It was the first final to see a player get sent off, as the Gunners’ Jens Lehmann received his marching orders for a foul on Samuel Eto’o.

Arsenal went into the final with a run of ten successive clean sheets, and when they took the lead despite being down to ten men, they looked comfortable holding on. That was until the final 15 minutes, when goals in quick succession from Eto’o and Belletti turned the game around, and handed Barcelona their second ever Champions League title.

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5. Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid (2014)

In 2014, Atletico Madrid entered their first Champions League final in 40 years as they faced their city rivals Real in Lisbon. Despite losing star forward Diego Costa early on, Atleti would take the lead via Diego Godin, a lead they’d hold on to for much of the game.

But Atletico would be denied in stoppage time when Sergio Ramos headed in Real’s equaliser and they added three more in the second half of extra time.

4. Bayern Munich v Borussia Dortmund (2013)

The first all-German Champions League final was in London in 2013 when Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich met at Wembley. This final was one to disprove many notions of showpiece games. Despite featuring teams from the same country, this was still an intense and entertaining game. Right from the off, the game didn’t let up, as goalkeepers at both ends were busy.

Bayern Munich would break through in the second period via Mario Mandzukic, and despite being pegged back, they’d get a late winner from Arjen Robben to exorcise the ghosts of 2013 for their fifth European title.

3. Manchester United v Chelsea (2008)

Another Champions League final that didn’t follow the script of same-country finals. Chelsea and Manchester United in Moscow had it all. Goals from key players, near misses, a tiny melee, a red card, and a game that literally seeped into the next day.

This final went to penalties, and Chelsea were on the cusp of glory until John Terry slipped and missed the Blues’ fifth, forcing sudden death. Four penalties later, there’d be another miss, as Nicolas Anelka also failed to score for Chelsea. United had pipped the Blues to titles on the domestic and continental fronts.

2. Barcelona v Manchester United (2011)

Barcelona’s meeting with Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final was far from the most dramatic. In fact, there was hardly any drama. You could say this is probably the most straightforward showpiece game of this competition of the century.

However, what this game lacked in drama, it made up for in performance. This was arguably the most complete performance by a team in the Champions League ever, as Barcelona took United to the woodshed. In the end, a 3-1 win flattered the Red Devils at Wembley and cemented the place of this Barcelona as one of the greatest teams of all time… if not the greatest.

1. Liverpool v Milan (2005) – Champions League Final Miracle in Istanbul

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No prizes for guessing the best Champions League final of this century. It’s probably the greatest final of all time. Liverpool were very much the outsiders when they met Milan in Istanbul and got off to the worst possible start when Paolo Maldini gave Milan the lead after 41 seconds. When Hernan Crespo added two more before half-time, it was surely over.

Yet, within six minutes of the second half, the game had gone from 3-0 to 3-3, and Liverpool held on to win on penalties. There’s a tendency to overstate the overall quality of this game, for much of the second half, it was a quiet affair. But there’s no overstating the magnitude of Liverpool’s comeback against what was probably the best team in Europe at the time.

 

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