Another campaign done, another Champions League trophy heading to Madrid. For the 14th time the Spaniards won Europe’s most prestigious tournament, and given their gruelling run and eventual triumph over Liverpool in Paris; one in which they were realistically dominated in every game, you’d be hard pressed to find a more deserving winner than Carlo Ancelotti’s band of experienced European stalwarts.
Indeed, this was the Italian’s second stint at the Santiago Bernabéu, and having delivered La Decima back in 2014, he came with a reputation and pedigree for success. Since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, the Madrid fans were yet to quench their thirst for another Champions League triumph, but while their squad was perhaps not as strong as the one that delivered three consecutive titles under Zinedine Zidane, the ageing core of the squad remained, and new heroes in Vinícius Júnior, Federico Valverde and Thibaut Courtois emerged to play integral roles in the 1-0 win at the Stade de France.
Liverpool were brilliant losers in that regard — moments from an historic quadruple. But the top level of football is defined by fine margins and while the Reds were favourites, like many others they just came up short. Aside from the final, there were plenty of other great memories that this season’s Champions League has given us, and with the changes being made to the format, it’s important to make the most of the tournament while it’s here. Read on as we look at some of the most memorable moments from this season’s Champions League campaign.
Sheriff upset the champions
It’s easy to talk about all of Real’s fantastic comebacks this season — the discourse around Karim Benzema against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea, then Rodrygo against Manchester City is one that has been shoved down our throats enough — but many fans are forgetting perhaps one of the greatest upsets in the history of the Champions League group stage.
It looked at the midway stage that Moldovan side FC Sheriff were going to qualify for the round of 16 when they beat Ancelotti’s side at the Bernabéu in September.
Having drawn to Inter Milan in the previous game, they were riding the crest of a wave as the Moldovans took the lead. But when Benzema pulled one back for the hosts a Madrid win looked inevitable regardless of any first half football bet. Then out of nowhere, Sébastien Thill cropped up with an 89th minute winner to cue disarray from the small corner of fans there to celebrate his Steven Gerrard-esque strike from 20 yards.
How different things could have been
Not everything memorable has to be positive, and in the case of UEFA, the round of 16 draw was almost farcical given the importance of the occasion. After releasing a statement, they claimed: “a technical problem with the software of an external service provider that instructs the officials as to which teams are eligible to play each other.”
“As a result of this, the draw has been declared void,”
It meant that a redraw was forced that could have very well changed the outcome of the entire tournament. The initial draw had Liverpool to face Salzburg, Villarreal to face Manchester City and Lionel Messi to meet Cristiano Ronaldo, potentially for one last time in Europe, as PSG drew Manchester United. It begs the question of what if, and if the original draw had been allowed to stand, would the same two sides have met at the Stade de France?
Villarreal made us dream
Back to Spanish shores now, and the story of Villarreal’s Champions League campaign will live long in the memory. After capturing the Europa League the season before, Unai Emery assembled a band of Premier League rejects and La Liga stalwarts to embark on an ambitious run to the semi-finals, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich along the way.
They weren’t as technically gifted as the Monaco side of 2017, or as aesthetically pleasing as the Eric ten Hag’s Ajax class of 2019, but this hard working, gritty side fought to the end and just 45 minutes separated them from Liverpool as they looked to book a place in Paris. It was a magic carpet ride of a journey, and even though it ended abruptly for the small town in Castellón, it’s one they’ll never forget.