I have always been a firm believer of the idea that winning the league proves you are the best team in your country. Whilst you may have good fortune along the way, there are no “lucky” winners of the Premiership. If over 38 games you accumulate more points than any other team, then you are without doubt the best team in the land.
When United stood to win the league on goal difference last season, questions were raised as to whether the success would mean as much as if you won it on points outright. Again, if when accumulating the points over 38 games you prove you have a better attack in the league, by scoring more goals than your title rivals, and a better defence, by conceding fewer goals than your title rivals, you are the best team in the country.
However, for a team to be named “the best in Europe”, the criteria is more hazy, as cup competitions are not always won by the best side entering (last season’s FA Cup final between Premiership side Portsmouth, who finished 8th, and Championship side Cardiff, who finished 12th, is testament to that). Whilst winning the Champions League is a huge achievement, regardless of how you compare in your domestic league, lifting the European Cup does not guarantee you are the best side on the continent.
When AC Milan won the Champions League the season before last, they finished 4th in Serie A (Without Juventus’ relegation for match fixing, they would have likely been placed 5th), some 36 points behind the Champions Inter Milan, with an inferior goal difference of 25.
When Liverpool won the competition the season before, they finished 5th in the league, a massive 37 points behind the Champions Chelsea, with a goal difference lacking in 46 goals.
Fortunately for United, when looking at our two most recent European Cup wins, there can be little doubt over who was the best team in Europe for those seasons.
1999 winners – Manchester United
This was the year of the unprecedented Treble, where United were the first team in English football history to claim the league title, European Cup and FA Cup in the same season. The football that side played was exquisite, brushing aside our opponents with devastating skill and exciting performances. The trophies alone are evidence enough to suggest we were the greatest side in all of Europe back then, but here is further weight to the argument.
In the group stages, United were put in with Barcelona (who, as already mentioned, won their league that season) and Bayern Munich, who were crowned German champions at the end of that season. It was a ridiculously difficult group, yet United finished top and didn’t lose a match.
In the quarter finals, United beat the 2nd best team in Italy, Inter Milan, 2-0 at home and drew 1-1 away. In the semis, we drew at home to the Italian Champions at home and beat them 3-2 away, coming back from 2-0 down. In the final, we beat the German Champions, Bayern Munich, in 90 minutes, scoring 2 injury time goals. Whilst ABUs will scorn we were lucky that evening in the Nou Camp, for me, the victory points to United’s refusal to be beaten. We wanted that European Cup more than Bayern and made sure it was us who had their hands on the trophy come the final whistle. Despite being without, arguably, our two most influential players, in Paul Scholes and Roy Keane, we battled on and claimed the victory.
Best team in Europe? United. Milan were Serie A Champions, yet won nothing else, whilst Barcelona did the same in Spain.
Games lost: 0
2005 winners – Liverpool
As already mentioned, Liverpool’s form in their domestic league that season was so poor that they didn’t even qualify by right to compete in the Champions League the following season. They lost close to 1/3 of their matches in the Premier League and weren’t even the best side in Liverpool, with Everton finishing 3 points ahead of them. Whilst there was a gap of 37 points between them and Chelsea, there were only 26 points separating them from the bottom placed team, Southampton.
Dropping out of the title race before the turn of the year, Rafael Benitez turned his efforts to the Champions League. He didn’t have a side anywhere near being strong enough to compete for the title, so rested his players in the league in order that they were fresh for Europe.
Liverpool lost to Olympiacos and Monaco in the group stages, progressing to the next round on goal difference, following a Deportivo own goal and late goals against Olympiacos in the final game.
They beat the 6th best team in Germany, Bayer Levekusen, in the first knock out round. They then went on to beat Juventus in the quarter-finals, where the club finally paid their respects to the 39 Italians who lost their lives following their fans riots at Heysel. The Italians were not impressed that the dippers had taken 20 years to acknowledge their wrong doings though, turning their backs on the Liverpool fans and whistling throughout the minute’s silence. They then went on to beat Chelsea in the semi-finals, courtesy of a Luis Garcia goal which never should have stood, as it did not cross the line. Liverpool fans claim that a penalty would have been awarded, had the goal not stood, however considering Baros’ foot was level with Cech’s head in the lead up to the ‘ghost goal’, a freekick should have been awarded in Chelsea’s favour.
In their final against AC Milan, Liverpool went in 3-0 down at half time, with the match seemingly won. However, within 10 minutes of the restart, Steven Gerrard dived in the box, earning Liverpool a penalty, which started the comeback. Liverpool finished the 90 minutes at 3-3, then went on to win a penalty shoot out.
Best team in Europe? Barcelona have an argument to claim this title, winning their league as well as the Supercopa. Liverpool? You’re having a laugh aren’t you.
Games lost: 3 (Liebherr GAK, Olympiacos, Monaco)
2007 winners – AC Milan
AC Milan were initially banned from the 2006-2007 Champions League following a match fixing scandal from the previous season. However, UEFA went back on their decision, just as they did with Porto this summer, and Milan’s undeserved place saw them go on to win the competition.
In Serie A, their inital 15 point deduction was rescinded to just 8 points, and they finished 4th. Even without the point deduction, they would have ended the season in 3rd position, 28 points behind champions Inter Milan. They won just half the league games they played and in terms of points, they were closer to the team who finished last, Messina, than they were to the champions.
Milan lost to AEK Athens and Lille in the group stages, before beating Celtic in extra time in the next round. They overcame the 4th placed team in the Bundesliga, Bayern Munich, in the quarter finals. In the semis, they lost to United at Old Trafford, before beating us 3-0 in the San Siro. Four days before this fixture, United went all out to come from 2-0 down against Everton to eventually secure 3 points in a much needed 4-2 to keep our title chances alive. In contrast, Milan were well out of their title race, so rested their best players.
However, I was supporting them in the final, which they easily won 2-1 against Liverpool.
Best team in Europe? Inter Milan have a strong claim to this title, winning the league, as well as finishing runners up in the Coppa Italia and Supercoppa. Like Liverpool in 2005, AC Milan were not even the best side in their city that year.
Games lost: 3 (Lille, AEK, United)
2008 winners – Manchester United
United won the league with more goals scored, fewer goals conceded and more games won than any other team.
With a game still to play in the group stages, United had secured their top spot in the group with 5 wins out of 5, seeing away the 2nd best sides in Italy and Portugal. In the next round, United knocked out the eventual winners of the French league, Lyon, who had won the title consecutively for the past 6 seasons. In the quarter finals, we beat Roma home and away. In the semi-finals, we knocked out Barcelona courtesy of a Paul Scholes screamer, after preventing the talents of Messi, Eto’o, Henry and Deco getting much of a look in on goal.
In the final we faced Chelsea, who were totally battered for the first half, yet were allowed back in to the game following a ball in to the box which took a deflection off two United players, before Lampard put the ball past Edwin Van der Sar, whose slip on the wet pitch prevented him from saving (as John Terry would later fall victim to). Chelsea came back in the second half and it was game on up until the end of extra time. A penalty shoot out ensued, and in sudden death, United were victorious.
Best team in Europe? United. Real Madrid (beaten by Roma in the CL first knockout round) were champions of Spain, yet won nothing else, and champions of Italy, Inter (beaten by Liverpool in the CL first knockout round), did the same.
The ideal way to win the European Cup is to prove you are the best team in your country before the final. However, even to narrowly miss out on the title, yet still win the Cup is testament to the fact you are at least there, or there abouts, as the European elite. The true measure of a team is whether they can compete in both their league as well as in Europe. However, the fact that so few teams manage this really adds weight to the argument that if you win both competitions, you are the best in Europe. If we look over the past 10 years, only 4 teams have successfully done this; United did it in 2008, Barcelona in 2006, Bayern Munich in 2001 and United in 1999. (FC Porto could be included in this also, after their league and Champions league double in 2004, but the Portuguese Liga is considered weaker than the domestic leagues of England, Spain, Italy and Germany).
The only way for the team to be crowned Champions of Europe to stand for exactly that, is if UEFA limit the qualification to the top 2 sides in each league. However, with the revenue so many teams in the competition bring, this is unlikely to happen any time soon, if ever.
However, as United fans, we can proud knowing that our past two Champions League titles have come with our team going undefeated in the competition, as well as being crowned champions of England. That is an accomplishment that no one can argue with. The fact that Sir Alex Ferguson has created two different teams that can be said to be the best in Europe is a truly remarkable achievement… and he hasn’t finished yet!