Every year The UEFA Champions League reminds us why it’s the pinnacle of sporting excellence. With the top performing clubs from across Europe competing, there’s always thrills galore...and plenty of surprises!
Who will win this season’s Champions League?
It's down to four teams
Everybody agrees that The Champions League is one of the most sought after and prestigious tournaments in sport. Initially introduced in 1955 as the European Cup, for many years it was a straight knockout tournament. In 1992 however, the tournament not only added a round-robin stage but also changed to its current name. This saw an increased interest in the event, which led to the expansion of entrants. While most national leagues on the continent can only provide their winner, the strongest leagues can now enter up to five teams.
An incredible testament to the competitive nature of The Champions League is that an astounding total of 22 different teams have clinched the trophy.
Over the years in this tournament fans have witnessed some of the greatest footballing action of all time. The finals are always a fitting culmination of the brutal battles that have been fought along the way. Some of the greatest include:
1994 AC Milan destroy Barcelona: What was billed as a close contest of heavyweights ended up being a one-sided display of brilliance. AC Milan romped to a 4-0 victory to clinch the title with a truly flawless performance.
1995 Underdogs prevail: Fairy tales don’t come true too often in the world of sport, but this is one for the record books. Dutch Side Ajax came into the contest against AC Milan written off by most pundits and fielding an incredibly young and inexperienced side. The mighty Italian squad was conquered by a show stopping 85th-minute goal by 18-year-old substitute Patrick Kluivert and history was made.
1999 A historic treble: Manchester United was used to accumulating trophies, but this one would be particularly special. Coming into the final against Bayern Munich, The Red Devils had the unique opportunity of sealing a treble having already secured the Premier League and FA Cup. Lesser teams may have succumbed to the pressure and faltered at the last hurdle, but not United. After their German opponents took an early lead, they looked outclassed for almost the entire match. In the dying moments, however, striker Teddy Sheringham found the back of the net and the crowd was stunned. Two minutes into injury time Germans fans were left heartbroken as The Red Devils secured an unlikely victory via a goal form sub-Ole Gunnar Solskjær. It was a comeback for the ages which left one team inconsolable and another euphoric.
2002 The French Real Madrid hero: Coming into the match as heavy favourites, Real Madrid fans were suddenly shocked as Bayer Leverkusen proved the most worthy of opponents. Would the German side defy the odds and be victorious? In an incredible nailbiter though, it was Zinedine Zidane who steered Madrid to victory with an athletic, almost superhuman, left-footed volley into goal. For this, the Frenchman has forever imbedded himself into the hearts of Spanish football fans.
2005 Heavyweight penalty shootout: Superteams Liverpool and AC Milan met in what was to become one of the most drama-filled Champions League finals ever. The star-packed Italian side were heavy favourites against an unusually moderate Liverpool team which many were surprised to see in the final. At half time the odds looked accurate with AC Milan having sped off to a 3-0 lead. However, a resurgent Liverpool emerged in the second half under the inspiring captaincy of Steven Gerrard. By the time the final whistle blew The Reds had equalled the score 3-3 and ,after extra time, a penalty shootout ensued. Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek sealed the heartbreak of AC Milan with a tremendous save and the home crowd was in ecstasy.
2018 Three-on the trot: Could Real Madrid win their 13 Champions League title and be the first side to win three in a row? Standing in their way was Liverpool who had been on a goal-scoring spree throughout the tournament.
Injuries, a disallowed goal and near misses kept fans on the edge of their seats. Finally, two tremendous goals from Gareth Bale led Madrid to a historic 3-1 victory.
Will this year’s tournament produce an equally dazzling conclusion? Well if the quarterfinals are anything to go by, this might well be the case. With the video assistant referee (VAR) system making its debut in the Champions League knockout phase, there was no shortage of drama:
The first quarter-final saw a sublimely in form Liverpool play host to Porto. The Portuguese side arrived determined to avenge their 5-0 drubbing of last season. The Reds, however, oozed class from the start and were quickly off to a lead, much to the delight of fans at Anfield Road. Jurgen Klopp’s side scored in the 5th minute courtesy of Guinean midfielder Naby Keita. The Porto defence looked rattled by Liverpool's mature control of the pace of the game. Sedentary periods would suddenly turn explosive as The Reds changed gears.
Porto tried to counterattack with aggressive formations but barring a few shots at goal from Marega, they never threatened seriously. Instead, in the 26th minute, Brazilian Roberto Firmino found the net and gave The Reds a comfortable cushion. From there on in it was cruise control for Liverpool. The team looked at ease, with Klop even feeling confident enough to replace key players towards the end. It was a performance that made pundits sit up and take notice.
The away game was even more impressive for Liverpool. The home fans did, however, enjoy the brief, fleeting hope of a comeback early on. Porto came out firing on all cylinders with Jesús Manuel Corona threatening in the first minute. The aggressive approach almost paid dividends on a few occasions, but Liverpool quickly regained control with Senegalese winger Sadio Mané scoring after 26 minutes. The game became rough with fouls a-plenty and at half time, Liverpool had failed to extend their lead. However, in the 65th minute, when Egyptian Mohamed Salah found the back of the net, The Reds looked uncatchable. A desperate Porto team quickly replied by scoring, but it was in vain as the Reds dominated with two more goals before the final whistle.The 4-1 scoreline may not accurately reflect the brutal nature of this battle, but it does show that Liverpool is close to unflappable.
The first leg of the second quarter-final was a much more even contest, with Tottenham Hotspur playing host to longtime EPL rivals Manchester City. While the visitors were favoured by many after their sterling season, recent poor performances against English sides in European competition were a nagging doubt. All that seemed behind them though, when in the 11th minute they were awarded a penalty. Argentinian superstar Sergio Agüero lined up for the spot-kick and a goal looked inevitable. Incredibly, however, Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris pulled off a dramatic, and ultimately vital save.
Despite missed chances from both sides after that, it looked as if City had the run of play. Almost out of nowhere though, South Korean Son Heung-min was fed the ball and, with a superb left-footed assault, put Spurs in front. Suddenly, City looked rattled and their chances seem to dry up with Spurs retained their advantage for the 1-0 victory.
Many anticipated a different kettle of fish in the second leg which saw Spurs have the intimidating prospect of traveling to the Etihad Stadium. Little did fans know that this was to be an encounter that would be remembered for years to come.
Spurs went out with a clear plan to protect their one-goal lead on aggregate. However, in the first 21 minutes an astonishing 5 goals were scored! The breakneck scoring began in the fourth minute when Raheem Sterling put the home side in front with an incredible curling shot that found the far corner of the net. The crowd was on their feet, but this was only the start…
A mere three minutes later Spurs drew level courtesy of an error from French defender Aymeric Laporte, whose clearance fell right onto the feet of Son Heung-min who capitalized for the equalizer. It was one goal apiece and the atmosphere was electric!
Laporte wasn’t having the best night and an errant pass from the Frenchman led to Son Heung-min scoring another goal in the 10th minute. Pandemonium ensued and was further heightened a minute later when a Bernardo Silva left-footed shot deflected off Danny Rose and found the net. It was 2-2 and the crowd noise was deafening. Only 10 minutes respite was in store for the fans though, as danger man Sterling then gave City the lead with a superb goal from a De Bruyne cross.
The chaos eased with the score remained static till the 59th minute when Agüero burst through the defence and seemingly sealed City’s berth in the semis with a tremendous goal.
As if that wasn’t enough drama though, in the 79th minute Spurs substitute Fernando Llorente found the back of the net in a controversial manner. Officials were uncertain as to whether the ball had come off the Spaniard's hip, or is hand. The game came to a torturous stop as officials examined the VAR. It was deemed legitimate and Spurs, while a goal behind in the game, were suddenly ahead on away goals. Despite valiant last-minute attempts from City, the score remained 4. Spurs lived to fight another day and City lamented their perceived injustice.
The first of the third quarter-final encounters came in the from of Ajax hosting giants Juventus. It was a game that took place on a knife edge, with plenty of acrimony between both players and fans. While the Italian visitors were strongly favoured to win, the home side was on a high after eliminating Real Madrid in the last 16. As such, they came out aggressively, retaining most of the possession and seemingly taking Juventus by surprise. Despite this, Ronaldo managed to put Juventus in front mere seconds before half time by connecting a brilliant header.
One might have expected a dejected Ajax side as the second half began, but after only one minute, an unbelievable strike from Brazilian David Neres levelled the score at 1-1. While the hosts retained the ball for the majority of the rest of play, they were unable to improve the scoreline which remained the same till the final whistle.
Perhaps underestimating the determination of Ajax, Juventus fans were fully expecting a convincing win in the second leg home clash. That faith looked well placed as Cristiano Ronaldo took Juventus into the lead courtesy of a 28th-minute header. The visitors attacking mentality was unphased though as Van de Beek guided the ball into the net a mere six minutes later. It was a blow that seemed to rattle Juventus, who never regained their stride.
Ajax seized control for the rest of the game and when Matthijs de Ligt scored off an excellent corner, the match was effectively over despite there being 23 minutes left on the clock. Juventus were deflated and never launched another serious challenge. The fairy tale continued and Ajax was through to their first Champions League semi-finals in 22 years.
Mercurial Manchester United then hosted Barcelona, who were deserving favourites to progress. In fact, many United fans were in fear of a humiliating mauling at the hands of Lionel Messi’s supremely in form side. They performed admirably though, apart from one crucial blunder: In the 12th minute, United defender Luke Shaw deflected the ball into his own net.
The home side recovered well though, but despite retaining a large part of the possession, their ineffective offense once again let the side down. (This encounter was the first time since 2005 in the Champions League that Manchester United failed to produce a single shot on target).
Still, only one goal behind there was a glimmer of hope for The Red Devils going into the second leg.It began looking like a thriller, with United finally showing some decent aggression. That didn’t last long though as the tide turned quickly. A penalty in the 11th minute for Barcelona was overturned after a video replay, but that was the last bad news for the Spanish side on the night. In the 16th minute, Messi scored what was perhaps the goal of the tournament. After outfoxing virtually the entire defense, he proceeded to strike with a perfect low curling shot. It was an unstoppable display of dominance that broke the hearts of United.
Four minutes later the Argentinian great took full advantage of this, scoring again in supreme style. From this point on it was all one-way traffic as Barcelona sailed to victory, adding a third goal from Coutinho for an emphatic 3-0 win.
It’s going to be a thrilling conclusion to the tournament as the team's head into the Semi-finals.
Taking these performances into account, the questions now are – which team is peaking at the right time and who has the class to win the title? Well, the answer is to the first part is up in the air, but as far as the second part goes, each and every side is classy enough to lift the trophy. With such an open competition, you’ll get brilliant odds on whoever you choose to bet on. The best odds can be found at the world's leading sportsbook, 1xBet:
5.4 Tottenham Hotspur: With Kenyan Victor Wanyama inspiring the squad, Spurs have had a fantastic season. Lying third in the English Premiership, they’ve continually maintained solid form. The Champions League however is where they’ve really shone. This is despite starting off the group stages with consecutive defeats at the hands of Inter and Barcelona. They slowly picked up momentum though, not losing another game and squeaking through to the last 16. There, Spurs dominant dispatching of Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund made them real contenders. The subsequent historic quarterfinals against rivals Liverpool proved that they’re one side that can rise to any occasion. If they can overcome Barcelona in the semi-finals, their brimming self-confidence will be further enhanced and they may well be able to continue the journey all the way to the end.
5.4 Ajax: At the start of the tournament the Dutch side were rank outsiders but they’ve proven to be a breath of fresh air. Beginning the group phase with an impressive 3-0 win over Greek side AEK Athens did little to shorten their odds. However, the following match saw Ajax draw a goal apiece with Bayern Munchen in a performance which savvy pundits noted. Suddenly the “Cinderella” of the tournament looked at home in the main event. Further impressing, Ajax went through the Group stages without losing a match.
It looked like the magic was over after Real Madrid took a one-goal lead into the second leg of their quarterfinal, which the Spaniards hosted. Not even the bravest Ajax fan could have predicted what happened next as the Dutch side destroyed Real Madrid 4-1 at Santiago Bernabeu. The world was stunned and the underdogs had captured the hearts of millions.
Then, they sent Juventus packing in the quarterfinals and the fairy tale continued. There’s no doubt that they’ve flourished despite having an incredibly tough draw. Has it all taken its toll or is there more in the tank for the Ajax?
3.5 Liverpool: The Reds have been enjoying an incredible season. With hopes of finally lifting an EPL trophy though, some fans are worried that the Champions League could be a second priority. That certainly seemed to be the case in the knockout stages where the side seemed to lack focus, suffering surprise defeats to both Serbian club Crvena Zvezda and Paris Saint-Germain. Nonetheless, the Reds made it to the last 16, where they sent Bayern Munchen home in workmanlike fashion. That performance wasn’t enough to instill confidence, however, the quarter-finals were. By annihilating Porto, Liverpool swayed naysayers to their camp and firmly laid down the gauntlet. This could be the year of a historic double for The Reds, but only time will tell...
2.4 Barcelona: What more can be said about the side that boasts not only the great Messi but has also crushed all opposition in the La Liga this year? Having won the Champions League five times before, there’s little doubt that they are the team to beat. As winners of both La Liga and Copa del Rey last season, they’ve been involved in no less than four competitions in the current season. Even by their exceptionally high standards, they are having a cracking run.
There was little doubt that the Spanish side would progress past the group stages, but the way they did it was incredibly impressive. Without dropping a game they came into the last 16 as worthy favourites. Then came a slight wobble in the form a goalless draw away to Lyon. Just as people began to think there was a chink in the armour, Barcelona put all doubts to rest with a phenomenal 5-1 win in the second leg. The ensuing destruction of Manchester United in the quarterfinals leaves supporters confident, and opponents wary. So, If history is any indicator, Messi’s men may well be lifting the trophy aloft on the June first.
He may be out of the tournament, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s words best sum it all up - “ The Champions League is always a special competition”. Year in and year out, this celebration of football produces some of the greatest sporting action on the planet. Fans worldwide may separate into differing team camps, but they unite in the spirit of the struggle.
Only the greatest of teams prevails at the end of a Champions League. This year, four very worthy squads head into the semi-finals with big hopes and dreams. Only one of them can win the competition – so, whose you pick?
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