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Champions League: Top ten moments of the decade

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Roar Guru
31st December, 2019
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The UEFA Champions League has routinely delivered the most dramatic moments in football as the premier club competition in the world.

The quest to win the prestigious tournament has inspired incredible comebacks and performances for the ages, and this past decade spoilt us with even more drama and brilliance.

Here are my top ten moments.

10. Lucas Moura hat-trick against Ajax, 2019

The moment
Tottenham came into the semi-finals of 2018-19 Champions League against Ajax one goal down already from a first-leg reverse and found themselves 2-0 down at the Amsterdam Arena down and seemingly out. However, Lucas Moura staged a second-half performance for the ages with a hat-trick completed deep into stoppage time.

Its significance
Tottenham had typically struggled to qualify for the competition, but the Brazilian’s heroics were a historic moment in Spurs history, as they reached their first-ever Champions League final. If people thought the quarter-final against Manchester City was dramatic, this match took it to another level in terms of the stakes and the drama, as the Champions League had all sorts of records broken in the semi-finals of 2018-19.

9. Sergi Roberto goal against Paris Saint-Germain, 2017

The moment
As far as dramatic late winners go, this has to be the winner for the decade. It may not have been a final nor even a semi-final, but Sergi Roberto’s lunging equaliser at the death to clinch victory from the jaws of defeat against PSG is worthy of inclusion for the sheer madness of the tie. Being 4-0 down from the first leg in Paris to proceeding to the quarter-finals via a 6-1 home victory, which came through a spell of three goals in seven minutes, there are no words to describe how Barcelona won it and how PSG lost it.

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Its significance
Every moment on this list has come from the eventual winner or at least the finalists, but here Barcelona’s last-gasp victory did not inspire a tale of triumph, as Juventus knocked them out in the last eight. However, the history made in this tie amid all the goals and the comeback itself are worthy of celebration given how this tie made all football fans feel joy for the games unpredictability and drama.

8. Trent Alexander-Arnold corner against Barcelona, 2019

The moment
Alexander-Arnold astutely takes advantage of slack marking from Barcelona by faking a short corner before proceeding a whipping a quick low ball into the path of Divock Origi, who duly scores to make it 4-0 on the night and 4-3 on aggregate. Call it youthful exuberance or Barcelona players switching off, what is undeniable is that the English youngster created that chance and goal from absolutely nothing.

Its significance
No team had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit in a Champions League semi-final, and with Barcelona visiting the likelihood of any comeback appeared remote. At 3-0 Liverpool made a tremendous fist of it, and like any improbable comeback bordering on the impossible a major stroke of luck or ingenuity is normally required to actually achieve rather than just get close. Alexander-Arnold’s sharpness and intelligence in that moment to create the vital winner was precisely the improvisation and craft that was needed and set them on their way eventually to a sixth European cup.

7. Gareth Bale bicycle goal against Liverpool, 2018

The moment
The 2018 Champions League final was evenly poised at 1-1 when Marcelo Vieira clips a ball into the box and Gareth Bale exhibits remarkable acrobatics with a volleyed bicycle kick that finds the top corner to put Real Madrid 2-1 up. It is a goal of jaw-dropping quality fit to win any final.

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Its significance
If not for Mo Salah’s injury and Loris Karius’s horrendous howler, this was probably a more tightly fought contest than the eventual 3-1 victory for Real Madrid. Bale’s goal earnt comparisons with Zinedine Zidane’s iconic volley against Bayer Leverkusen in the 2002 final, such was its quality. Rarely have Real Madrid produced their best in the four European cup finals they won throughout the decade with the exception of 2017.

However, Bale’s moment of brilliance was a reminder of just how good this Real Madrid team was, given the sheer names in the team who were capable of moments such as this when required. Considering the other two goals Los Blancos scored were courtesy of goalkeeping errors, it would be satisfying for them to know that a moment of greatness is associated with the 2018 final. This may well be the moment of Champions League finals of the decade.

6. Ronaldo five goals against Bayern Munich, 2017

The moment
Cristiano Ronaldo had just almost single-handedly sent Real Madrid into the last four of the Champions League in 2016-17 by scoring five of Real Madrid’s six goals over two legs against Bayern Munich. In clash of the titans Cristiano Ronaldo outscored Bayern Munich all by himself.

Its significance
Regardless of where you may sit on the Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo debate, what is clear is that we are talking about two of the absolute all-time greats, because they are unique and different players. Ronaldo has always approached the game with a relentless desire to improve and push the limits when it comes to scoring goals and winning trophies. His preparation and fitness are key, but what binds it all together is his mentality and indomitable spirit and will, which makes it possible for him to reach for perfection and be at the top of his game for well over a decade.

Once Real Madrid’s La Decima craving was met, you get a sense that there had to be a deeper driving force that spurred them on to four titles in five seasons. Ronaldo’s almost sheer bloody-mindedness in needing to win and succeed was perfectly illustrated over these two legs where he was seemingly on a one-man mission to create further history.

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5. Sergio Ramos’s equaliser against Atletico Madrid, 2014

The moment
In the dying moments of the 2014 Champions League final that happened to also be a Madrid derby for added tension and spice, Sergio Ramos scored a dramatic equaliser with a bullet header deep into second-half stoppage time.

Its significance
La Decima was so close yet so far after Diego Godin’s header had given Atletico Madrid the lead in the first half. Real Madrid were staring down the barrel of almost unbearable failure when the now legendary Los Blancos captain rose highest to equalise. Real Madrid would subsequently go onto win La Decima in extra time with a flurry of goals to eventually win 4-1, but it is the Spaniard’s heroics that made it all possible to find that something extra where even Cristiano Ronaldo had failed to deliver the goal they needed. It inspired a run of four titles in five seasons as Ramos would perform even more heroics in finals as the decade unfolded.

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4. Didier Drogba’s equaliser against Bayern Munich, 2012

The moment
In Bayern Munich’s own backyard at the Allianz Arena Didier Drogba delivered what seemed the unthinkable and scored the equaliser via an emphatic header, which overpowered Manuel Neuer in the 88th minute of the 2012 Champions League final.

Its significance
Chelsea’s tale of becoming European champions in 2012 was a redemptive tale that had no shortage of romance. Drogba’s equaliser was equally dramatic as it was clutch in a match Bayern Munich dominated from start to finish. It is remarkable to think the Chelsea legend somehow mustered the power and energy to deliver at such a critical moment despite all the donkeywork he was forced to perform for the majority of the final.

He had been sent off four years previously against Manchester United for an act of petulance that some view as costing Chelsea the final, but here he would go on to complete his redemption by converting the winning penalty in the shootout. London’s first Champions League winners had been a long time coming, the pure drama and romance of an ageing team of warriors finally triumphing on their last stand was down to the heroics and cup final pedigree of one of Africa’s greatest.

3. Lionel Messi’s goal against Bayern Munich, 2015

The moment
In the semi-finals of the Champions League in 2014-15 Lionel Messi scored a contender for goal of the decade with a sumptuous solo strike. He runs at Jerome Boateng on the edge of the Bayern box and as he enters the technical area he shifts onto his right foot and chips into an empty net having taken out a world-class defender and goalkeeper in one jinking run and movement.

The beauty in this goal was its simplicity: there were no stepovers, tricks or any elaborate movement. The sheer fear that Messi strikes into the heart of the opposition meant that Boateng lost balance and fell flat on his backside as he was driven inside out by Messi’s magic. The dinked finish only added to the classy nature of the goal as Messi ran rampant at Camp Nou.

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Its significance
The game is well remembered for Pep Guardiola’s ludicrously bold decision to man-mark Barcelona over the pitch and match their shape. It is unclear whether it was a show of aggression and ego or an acknowledgement that Barcelona could not be contained in any other way. Regardless, Messi’s toying with Jerome Boateng, one of the best defenders in the world, was a massive statement in this heavyweight clash between two giants of Europe.

After years of coming up short since their 2011 triumph headlined by Bayern Munich’s dismantling of Barcelona in 2013, this was a timely reminder of Messi’s gifts as well as his very personal hand in the revenge that was inflicted on Bayern for their 7-0 aggregate humiliation two years earlier. Messi would inspire Barcelona to a second treble in seven years with the defeat of Juventus in the 2015 final.

2. Guardiola masterclass against Manchester United, 2011

The moment
This was peak Barcelona and peak Pep Guardiola. It may not quite have been peak Messi, but it certainly was close to it under Guardiola. The Blaugrana’s graceful demolition of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League final is a performance now widely recognised as the best in the competition’s history. The 3-1 scoreline did not do justice as Barcelona absolutely bossed the game from start to finish with 68 per cent possession and 22 attempts at goal to United’s paltry 32 per cent of the ball as they could only muster one shot on target.

Its significance
Jose Mourinho’s denial of a Guardiola three-peat in Europe in 2010 was a significant blow when reflecting on how Real Madrid have done so and Barcelona haven’t. However, the dismantling of Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United was magnanimously labelled by the legendary Scotsman as “the best team I have ever faced”.

The statistics serve to tell only the major moments of the game, but most telling is that of the 60 playing minutes, less stoppages, of this match Barcelona were in possession for 40, twice as much as their hapless opposition.

Manchester United are known to play attacking football on the front foot without fear, but in this final they were made to look second-rate as Messi, Xavier Hernández Creus and Andres Iniesta ran rings around United. Barcelona’s crisp ball circulation, chemistry and sense of comfort was on clear display despite United’s exertions as the players moved the ball around effortlessly, borrowing a yard or a second from one another as Barcelona traded feet for hands. It was the performance of the decade, something nearing perfection.

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1. Real Madrid’s three-peat, 2016-18.

The moment
From Sergio Ramos’s dramatic equaliser in Lisbon right through to Gareth Bale’s dipping drive in Kiev, Real Madrid’s run of four Champions League titles in five seasons harks back to the beginning of the competition in the 1950s when Los Blancos won the first five competitions. However, what made this run what it is, is their three-peat from 2016 to 2018, which was the first time any side had won three titles in row since Bayern Munich’s run of 1974-76.

Its significance
In the modern era only AC Milan had last defended the European Cup in 1990. In the UEFA Champions League era a team had never even defended their title, let alone won three in a row. Real Madrid have also had to suffer their fair share of heartache, as under Jose Mourinho they lost three straight semi-finals in 2010-13 before their glorious run of four titles in five years. Those years of pain and suffering only add to the legend of their eventually triumphant tale.

The finals weren’t always vintage Real Madrid, but Zinedine Zidane’s mastery of the competition with the help of Cristiano Ronaldo’s talismanic performances made it possible for Los Blancos to kick on after winning La Decima and rack up 13 titles as the new decade approaches.

A legendary team consisting further of Sergio Ramos, Raphael Varane, Marcelo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema and Gareth Bale, who have all been there for the whole journey along with Ronaldo, attests to their longevity at the top level.

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Real Madrid’s tally of 13 titles is nearly double the second most successful team, which is AC Milan and their seven cups, and given the degree of difficulty that history has often shown in taming this competition, a run of three successive victories is worthy of the title of Champions League moment of the decade.