Monday, May 25, 2009

Counting Down the Best European Cup Finals

Wednesday's Champions League Final between Manchester United and Barcelona has the potential to be an all-time classic. All season long, ManU and Barca have stood out as the top two teams in Europe, so if you're not a fan of one of the two sides, you have to hope that Wednesday's meeting in Rome joins the list of great finals. Here's my take on the top 10 European Cup finals of all-time.

10) 1994: AC Milan 4, Barcelona 0: A meeting of the winners of three of the last five cups was noteworthy not for the match's close score line, but for the impressive manner in which AC Milan pounded the favored Catalans. Without star defenders Franco Baresi and Alessandro Costacurta, the Rossoneri scored four times within the first hour en route to their fifth title.

9) 2006: Barcelona 2, Arsenal 1: An early red card against goalkeeper Jens Lehmann left Arsenal down to 10 men, but the shorthanded Gunners shockingly took the lead on a 37th minute goal by Sol Campbell and gamely tried to preserve the advantage. But two goals by Barca in the final 15 minutes- a 76th minute equalizer by Samuel Eto'o and the winner from Juliano Belletti four minutes later- gave the Spaniards their second Cup.

8) 1987: Porto 2, Bayern Munich 1: Just 12 minutes from time, a sublime back heel touch from Porto's Rabah Madjer erased Bayern's first half lead. Before the Germans could recover, Juary put home the winner two minutes later. It would not be the last time Bayern would be victimized by a pair of late goals.

7) 1967: Celtic 2, Inter Milan 1: Another match highlighted by a second-half rally, Celtic broke the 11-year cup dominance of Mediterranean sides, becoming the first British team to win the title. The Celtic roster, made up entirely of players from within 50 minutes of Glasgow, are still celebrated fondly as the "Lisbon Lions."

6) 1960: Real Madrid 7, Eintracht Frankfurt 3: While many consider this match the greatest final of all-time, the lopsided score keeps it from ranking higher on my list. This was, however, the Real Madrid dynasty at the peak of its power. Ferenc Puskas scored four times and Alfredo Di Stefano added a hat trick as Real captured their record fifth-straight title.

5) 1968: Manchester United 4, Benfica 1, a.e.t.: In front of a pro-ManU crowd at a packed Wembley Stadium, Manchester United found their second wind in extra time, scoring three times in a five-minute span to capture their first title. Bobby Charlton scored the Red Devils' first and last goals, while George Best put home the eventual game winner.

4) 1999: Manchester United 2, Bayern Munich 1: The ultimate late show saw Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer both score in stoppage time to give Manchester United the treble. The shock ending lead to one of the all-time great broadcasting quotes from Clive Tyldesle: "What must Lothar Matthäus be thinking? Well, with the greatest respect, who cares?"

3) 1962: Benfica 5, Real Madrid 3: A meeting of the first six cup winners was a back-and-forth affair. Real took first half leads of 2-0 and 3-2, with all three goals coming from Puskas. After Benfica tied the match early in the second half, Eusebio netted a pair of goals to give the Portugese squad back-to-back titles.

2) 1956: Real Madrid 4, Stade de Reims, 3: The first European Cup Final set a lofty standard for future matches. Real rallied from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits, with Marquitos scoring in the 79th minute to send the innaugural title to Madrid.

1) 2005: Liverpool 3, AC Milan 3 (Liverpool wins on PKs): The two games above were the only time a team had rallied from two goals. Never had a team recovered from a three-goal margin. That was the deficit staring Liverpool in the face at halftime of their final against AC Milan. But as fast as you can say Gerrard, Smicer, Alonso, the Reds leveled the match and hung on for PKs. Two years after sealing a shootout win against Juventus, Andrei Shevchenko saw his spot kick saved, giving Liverpool an improbable fifth title. The match was the highest-scoring European final in 33 years.

If you don't like my list, has its own take on the Top 10.

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