His list of Champions League records tell it all: two winners medals; the first goalkeeper to reach 50 clean sheets; the oldest player to play in the knock-out phase. Since he claimed a clean sheet in the final in 1995, allowing Patrick Kluivert’s solitary goal to secure the title, he has consistently been one of Europe’s most reliable ‘keepers. His second highlight would surely be saving Anelka’s penalty during the final in 2008 to obtain his second winner’s medal.
Obviously psyched up with the penalty shoot-out score at 5-5, he read Anelka’s shot, dived to his right saving with both hands. A brilliant end to a poor game.
Unflappable and capable of using his extensive arms to make the odd miraculous save, van der Sar will retire later in the year, safe in the knowledge he has been the best goalkeeper in the Champions League era.
Left Back: Roberto Carlos
A player who combined the sometimes elusive combination of longevity and sustained pace and power. Capable of running 100 metres in 10.6 seconds, Carlos foraged up and down the left flank for Real for 11 years, picking up three Champions League winners medals along the way. He claimed the assist for, to my mind, the best European goal of all time (see Zinedine Zidane, below) but it was not the moments of singular brilliance that characterised why he was such an important part of the Madrid team at the turn of the millennium; it was the countless examples of the sort of play highlighted here:
Rampaging forward before using his lightening pace to recover his position at left back, Carlos will not only be remembered for ‘that free-kick‘; he will go down as a juggernaught who managed to patrol the whole of the left hand side of the pitch.
Right Back: Javier Zanetti
There can be little rationale behind this selection, really; Inter have only made ten appearances in the Champions League (and one of those occurred before the Argentine joined the club). We could argue that his inclusion is merited on the basis of last season’s dogged performances – he was integral in dragging Mourinho’s team past Barcelona and over Bayern Munich. That’s true; he was tremendous in all three of those games. Unfortunately, he didn’t actually play right back in any of them. He was deployed on the left against Barcelona and then, aged 36, in central midfield in the final. That, essentially, is the reason he is in this team. Zanetti stands out as one of the Champions League’s greats in spite of Inter’s overall disappointment. His positional adaptability makes him seem almost ubiquitous and therefore a must-pick – unless you’re Diego, but you’re probably not.
Centre Back: Paolo Maldini
The longest-serving one-club footballer of all time is quite possibly the most elegant defender to have graced the sport. During his 25 years at AC Milan (30 if you include his apprenticeship), Maldini played in the Champions League final eight times, winning it on five occasions, twice as captain.
His calm, reliable playing style as a left-back or centre-back helped to earn Maldini an incredible 126 caps for the Italian national team and he was still playing at the top of his game aged 40 (like Rangers’ David Weir, only slightly better). It was not just his fitness that Maldini managed to maintain throughout his career; his boyish good looks typically led to Gabby Logan gushing about him in the build up to Champions League games.
As a mark of respect for arguably their greatest ever player, AC Milan retired Maldini’s number 3 shirt when he decided to end his playing career. It will only be worn again if one of Maldini’s sons plays for the club. No pressure there then…
Sir Alex Ferguson – who knows a thing or two about football – has previously stated that the AC Milan legend was his ‘favourite player‘ on any team he had managed against.
Centre Back: Marcel Desailly
According to Wikipedia, Marcel Desailly actually played for Chelsea at one point in his career. I don’t remember it, or at least choose not to. While most go to the US or the Middle-East for one final pay out, I consider it testament to the man’s devastating ability that he chose to see out his career at one of the best clubs in the world. I use the term ‘see out his career’ because really Desailly had nothing more to prove to me after the 1994 Champions League Final.
I have only vague memories of the game, but I’m not concerned. It was going to be a pretty close contest but Barcelona would shade it because Milan had so many first teamers unavailable. Just after half-time Milan scored their third without reply and the game was over.
But what made the final so memorable for me, was Milan’s fourth and Desailly’s first. He intercepted a Barcelona pass in midfield and just started running. In a team full of exceptionally talented, yet rather weak Italians, you sensed the whole world shift forward on their sofa’s a little. Powering past two Barcalona sub-ordinates, he exchanges a pass with the brilliant Albertini, who slides him through on goal. Without breaking stride, Desailly opens up his mammoth frame and bends a pearler around the stranded Zubizarreta.
I had never seen this type of goal before. Watching it live, I had no idea a player could curl a ball around the goalie and into the far corner. I realize now that this goal is not uncommon, but has anyone ever executed it so perfectly? Not in my opinion.
Midfield: Steven Gerrard
A career that has put a face to Billy Ocean’s classic ‘When the Going Gets Tough, the Tough Get Going,’ Stephen Gerrard’s unique ability to turn a game that appears to be slipping out of reach has helped him earn a place among this team of stars. Never in my football-watching life have I seen a man grasp hold of and redirect a game in the way Stevie G did in 2005 and such a performance deserves the kind of recognition that a place in the Big Man’s Champions League XI delivers. Should his team ever find themselves 3-0 down at half-time, never stop believing.
Midfield: Zinedine Zidane
A must pick: the golden player of the Champions League era, in my opinion, Zinedine Zidane. Why?
(one time when I think I was likely shouting GOAAAAL for as long as the Spanish commentator.) And so much more.
Xavi is a talisman of the good that Champion’s League football has brought to the British game. I always knew/was told that good technique was something the Italians and the Spaniards had, but Xavi’s Champion’s League career has demonstrated on our TV screens what that truly means. He has shown us that the beauty of football is not just present in the scoring of a goal. It’s in the pass that splits the defence, the one-two that creates space for an attack, the first touch that beats a man and the interception that so elegantly breaks up an attack. Xavier Hernandez i Creus is a man who has changed many an English footballing philosophy and as a result helped us celebrate our own technical magicians.
Midfield: Clarence Seedorf
As quiz fans will know, Seedorf is the only player to have won the Champions League with three different clubs (Ajax in 1995, Real Madrid in 1998 and AC Milan in 2003 and 2007) and, as such, his inclusion in our Champions League XI is no real surprise.
The tough-tackling Dutchman was often referred to as ‘the engine’ of the teams he played for, due to his high-energy approach. The out-of-contract hard man is rumoured to be heading to Manchester City in the summer, but AC Milan will always be the club he is best associated with, having played for the European giants since 2002.
His career scoring record is not particularly outstanding, but when the midfielder does score, it is normally in spectacular style from long-range. If you have ever heard people referring to ‘Seedorf’s goal for Real Madrid’ (probably the best of his career), this is the one they mean:
Raul is the Champions League. He holds both appearance and goal-scoring records at an incredible 144 and 71 respectively. He has won the competition three times and top scored twice. However, Raul’s Champions League career isn’t just one of records but of glorious moments of genius. He loved a chipped finish, curled a few, added the odd scoop and he could hit a belter too – Barcelona can testify to that. But the finish I associate with him is the rounding of the goalkeeper, a finish which demonstrates calmness and clarity of thought.
Raul scored two such goals that I clearly remember. He scored the first in the 1999-00 final against Valencia (the final in which Steve McManaman scored!) He sprinted from inside his own half direct at Canizares’ goal with an eternity to think about what to do – sometimes the nemesis of a ‘natural finisher’ but not of Raul. He side-stepped the ‘keeper and from a tight angle, slid the ball behind the desperately lunging defender to put the garnish on 3-0 victory. Wonderful.
The second was completely different, a blink-and-you-miss-it scenario: Rosenborg, Group Stage. Robinho tears apart the defence but overruns the ball as he enters the area. Raul beats the ‘keeper to it and with a roll of the left foot, only seen clearly in the replay, creates the opening for a side-footed finish. Wonderful.
The Wonderful Raul Gonzalez.
Forward: Filippo Inzaghi
Pippo’ isn’t his real name, its Filippo and you either love him or hate him. But then, no one cares about the man, it’s the philosophy we either embrace or reject. Signor Inzaghi scores goals, and that’s it. He has scored over 400 career goals, and incredibly, every single one has been from 6 yards or less. Ok, that isn’t true, but its believable isn’t it?
Inzaghi, at his prime, is the exact same player as Inzaghi at the end of his career, and that for me is why he is so great. He has no need to reinvent himself, or change his game. As long as 6 yards remains 6 yards and the ball and goals maintain their current dimensions, Inzaghi will score goals for the rest of his life. Can you remember an Inzaghi goal? Me neither, and that just further fuels the debate.
I think he is brilliant and, if we measure achievements relative to ability and style, the best player of all time.
Manager: Sir Alex Ferguson.
Let’s not kid ourselves, Alex Ferguson is a great manager, but realistically there’s only one man you’d appoint to mould this disparate click of eternal superstars and that’s the special one. Unlike the flamboyant Portuguese who specialises in cultivating and massaging a preassembled bricolage of egos he knows cannot be larger than his, Fergie is master of his own creation. The Glaswegian has moulded four distinct Champions League finalists, each paradoxically clearly in his own image. That is some achievement but ultimately and perhaps wrongly, English football’s consummate team-builder gets this job over Mourinho on the strength of the utterance of three joyous words: ‘Football, bloody Hell!’ Indeed.