UEFA Champions League: How the past 20 Defending Champions have started and how they ended
‘Die Meister! Die Besten!! Les Grandes Equipes!!! The Champions!!!’. That’s right, like every other autumn, even though this is understandably later than usual, the UEFA Champions League is back, a competition with so much glamour and buzz around it, that you forget how incredibly elitist it is.
The Champions League can, in its way, symbolize toxicity. You know the bad things and how questionable its system has become, but you can’t not love it anyway. So, here we are.
Last season, we ran through how the eventual winners began their campaigns (and Bayern duly went on to win every game on their way to a sixth title). This time around, we take a look at how Bayern and other previous winners of the last 20 seasons have begun their defences, and how it ended up:
1999/00 (Manchester United)
Manchester United’s triumph in 1998/99 is one for the football history books. A goal down as the game reached stoppage time, four minutes Sir Alex Ferguson’s side were European champions, completing a brilliant treble. United kickstarted their title defence with a goalless draw against Croatia Zagreb in the first game of the first group stage.
How did the defence go: United made it out of both group stages, and faced off with a rather unconvincing Real Madrid side in the quarter-finals. But it was the Red Devils who looked conviction this time, as they followed up a goalless draw at the Bernabeu with a 3-2 defeat on home soil.
2000/01 (Real Madrid)
After seeing off Manchester United, Real Madrid would go all the way to the Champions League final, where they’d see off fellow Spaniards Valencia in Paris. Real, like Man United the previous season, would begin their defence in 2000/01 with a 2-2 draw at Sporting Clube, coming from two down to salvage a point in Lisbon.
How did the defence go: Real went one better than United, making their way to the semi-finals, but they’d be sent packing after losing home and away to eventual champions Bayern Munich.
2001/02 (Bayern Munich)
Before 2001, Bayern had thirsted for the Champions League, one they hadn’t won since the ‘70s. They’d reached two finals since that era, but lost both despite taking the lead, the latter of which being that infamous collapse against United in 1999. But the Bavarians finally got it right at the turn of the century, beating Valencia in Milan on penalties. Bayern followed the path of the two immediate previous winners, but opening their defence with a draw, a goalless stalemate against Czech side Sparta Prague.
How did the defence go: And just like United and Real, Bayern also fell to the eventual holders, as they met the latter in the quarter-finals, their third meeting with Los Blancos in as many seasons. This time, Real proved too strong.
2002/03 (Real Madrid)
Real followed up beating Bayern Munich by knocking out Spanish rivals Barcelona in the semis, and then beating Bayern’s German counterparts Bayer Leverkusen in the final in Hampden Park, a game notable for that Zinedine Zidane moment. Real began their defence in 2001/02 by going to the Eternal City and smashing three past Italians Roma.
How did the defence go: Like in 2001, Real made their way to the Semis, but couldn’t build on a 2-1 first-leg lead against Juventus, and lost 3-1 in Turin.
2003/04 (AC Milan)
This time, the holders didn’t lose to the eventual champions, as Juventus would fall to Italian neighbours Milan on penalties at Old Trafford. Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan would begin their title defence against Ajax, a side they’d dramatically seen off in the previous quarter-finals, and thanks to Pippo Inzaghi, walked off with a 1-0 win.
How did the defence go: Milan got to the last eight, and faced Deportivo, and looked set to stroll to the Semis after drubbing the Spaniards 4-1 in Milan. But Mila would be shellshocked at the Riazor, as they lost 4-0 and haplessly fell out of the competition.
2003/04 was an unusual season, and perhaps the last real one of authenticity, as the semi-finals consisted of Porto, Monaco, Deportivo, and a then up and coming Chelsea. Porto, under the charismatic Jose Mourinho, would emerge champions, before their manager jetted off for Chelsea. In 2004/05, the Portuguese side, under Jesualdo Ferreira, began with a goalless at home to Russians CSKA Moscow.
How did the defence go: Porto followed up that draw with two defeats, and looked set to go out in the group stage. But they rallied and managed two wins from the final three games to finish second behind Mourinho’s Chelsea. However, Porto were never going to recreate the previous season’s exploits, and a meeting with Inter in the first knockout round was a bridge too far.
If the 1999 final was dramatic, the 2005 showpiece in Istanbul was a blockbuster. By half-time, Liverpool were dead and buried, with opponents Milan three up and cruising. But three minutes in the first 15 minutes after the break saw the game at 3-3, and the Reds triumphed on penalties. Liverpool kicked off their defence by going to Seville and seeing off Real Betis.
How did the defence go: The Reds didn’t quite replicate the efforts of the previous campaign, as they suffered a 3-0 aggregate loss to Benfica in the first knockout round.
Liverpool conquerors Benfica would fall to a Ronaldinho-inspired in the quarters. Barca had seen off Chelsea in the last 16, and followed up their quarter-final victory over Benfica by beating Milan. Then came the final with Arsenal, in which the ten-man Gunners looked to be heading for victory in Paris until two late goals gave Barca a second ever Champions League crown. Frank Rijkaard and his side began their defence in September 2006 by putting five past Bulgarian minnows Levski Sofia.
How did the defence go: Things didn’t go so well for Barca after that, failing to win their next three group games, before rescuing themselves in the final two. The Blaugrana would, ironically, meet Liverpool in the last 16, and despite winning the second leg at Anfield, they would be knocked out on away goals.
Liverpool got to the final after seeing off Barcelona, for a rematch with Milan. But this time, it’d be the Italians who’d come out on top, thanks to an Inzaghi brace in Athens. Inzaghi was on the scoresheet again in the first game of Milan’s title defence, a 2-1 victory over Benfica.
How did the defence go: Milan faced Arsenal in the last 16, and after a goalless first leg at the Emirates, looked to have the advantage going to the San Siro. No English had beaten Milan on their ground before, but Arsenal, who’d scored five there against Inter some four years before, would grab a 2-0 win and send the holders packing.
2008/09 (Manchester United)
Nine years after winning in Barcelona, United would win the Champions League again, beating Chelsea in Moscow, in a dramatic penalty shoot-out, which saw an infamous miss from Blues skipper John Terry. United began their defence with a goalless draw against Villarreal – the third of four scoreless stalemates between both sides in four years.
How did the defence go: United saw off Inter, Porto, and Arsenal en route to another final. But this time, there would be no triumph, as they lost to Barcelona in Rome.
For Barcelona, that 2009 triumph was part of a magnificent treble, in the first managerial season of former Cules midfielder Pep Guardiola. Pep’s men began their defence by playing out a goalless draw against Inter.
How did the defence go: Barcelona and Inter would meet again, this time in the semi-final. But it was Inter who would come out on top, as a 3-1 first-leg at the San Siro helped Jose Mourinho and his side to a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Inter would go on to win the Champions League, their first in 35 years, marking another treble, before Mourinho left for Real Madrid. Rafael Benitez was the manager as Inter began their title defence with a draw at Dutch champions Twente.
How did the defence go: Inter finished second in their group, and by the time they faced Bayern Munich in the last 16, Benitez had been replaced by Leonardo in the dugout. Bayern – whom Inter had beaten in the 2010 final – left the San Siro with a 1-0 win, and looked to knocking out Inter when they led 2-1 in the second leg with a quarter of an hour left in the tie. But two late goals from the Nerazzurri completed a comeback and saw the champions make their way to the last eight. There would be no such luck in the quarters, however, as Inter suffered a 7-3 aggregate thrashing at the hands of another German side in Schalke.
2010/11 saw Barcelona win a second European title in three years, and there are debates as to whether this side is the greatest of all time. Guardiola’s side were the favourites to retain the title the following season, which they begun by conceding in the first and last minute for a 2-2 draw against Milan.
How did the defence go: Barcelona would meet Milan again, in the last eight, and knocked out the Italians 3-1 on aggregate. But they couldn’t find a way past Chelsea in the Semis, as a resolute Blues side held on for a dramatic 3-2 aggregate victory.
Chelsea followed that Barcelona triumph up with another backs-to-the wall victory in the final, beating Bayern Munich on penalties on their own patch. The Blues would only get to the Champions League by virtue of winning it, and began their defence by dropping a two-goal lead in a draw against Juventus.
How did the defence go: Things didn’t go so well for the Blues afterwards, and by November Champions League-winning manager Roberto Di Matteo was sacked, and Benitez was appointed as his replace. Chelsea would be knocked out of the Champions League group stage, but went on to win the Europa League under Benitez.
2013/14 (Bayern Munich)
Bayern finally got it right in 2013, after two final defeats in three years. Die Roten saw off Arsenal, Juventus, Barcelona, before beating fellow Germans Borussia Dortmund in the final at Wembley. Bayern’s win was the second title in a treble in what was (meant to be) Jupp Heynckes’ final season as manager. Pep Guardiola came in afterwards, and the European title defence began with a 3-0 win over CSKA Moscow.
How did the defence go: Pep’s Bayern made their way to the Semis, but were sucker-punched by a ruthless Real Madrid led by future Bayern manager Carlo Ancelotti.
2014/15 (Real Madrid)
Before 2014, Real had sought a tenth Champions League – La Decima – for 12 years, a spell that involved 11 managers and six successive last 16 eliminations. Jose Mourinho looked to be man to deliver that elusive tenth title, but fell at the semi-final hurdle three times. Ancelotti would manage it in his first try, as Real beat Madrid rivals Atletico after extra-time in Lisbon. The following season, Real began their defence with a 5-1 win over Basel.
How did the defence go: Real would meet Atletico Madrid again – the second of four European clashes in a row – and triumph again, in the quarter-final. But the last four was where the journey would end, as Ancelotti’s former side Juventus – thanks to former and future Real man Alvaro Morata – knocked out the holders.
Real’s failure was Barcelona’s gain, as it was Luis Enrique’s Cules who ended with the crown, another treble, after beating Juventus in Berlin. Barca began their defence against another Italian side, but could only draw at Roma.
How did the defence: Los Cules were favourites to win the Champions League again, but would stumble in the last eight, at the hands of Atletico Madrid, like they did in 2014.
2016/17 (Real Madrid)
Atleti would reach another final, but would once again fall at the hands of Real Madrid, this time on penalties. Real, now under former Los Blancos favourite Zinedine Zidane, began their defence with a dramatic win against Sporting Clube.
How did the defence go: Real would meet Atleti again, this time in the semi-finals, and saw off their rivals, having previously beaten Bayern in the quarters. Los Blancos went up against Juventus in the final in Cardiff, a 4-1 win meant they became the first team to retain the Champions League since 1990.
2017/18 (Real Madrid)
Real looked a cut above everyone else going into the new season, as Spanish and European champions. They began their defence by putting three past Cypriots APOEL Nicosia.
How did the defence go: Real didn’t turn out as dominant as many predicted, but still saw off PSG, Juventus and Bayern Munich on their way to another final, in Kiev. This time, against Liverpool, a game memorable for Gareth Bale’s moment of magic and Loris Karius’ moments of madness, Real equalled the Bayern Munich and Ajax of the ‘70s, by winning three in a row.
2018/19 (Real Madrid)
At the end the 2017/18 season, Zidane called time as manager, and was replaced by former Spain head coach Julen Lopetegui. The defence under Lopetegui began with a 3-0 win over Roma, but that was as good as it got for Real under the former Porto manager.
How did the defence go: By October, Lopetegui was sacked, and replaced by former Real midfielder Santiago Solari. Solari saw his side face Ajax in the last 16, where they got decimated by the young side. By the end of March, Solari was gone, and Zidane was back in the dugout.
2019 was Liverpool’s year, as they went one better than the previous season, thanks to a remarkable comeback against Barcelona, beating Spurs in Madrid. Liverpool kicked off their defence in the most insipid fashion, by being the only side on this list to start off with a defeat, at Napoli.
How did the defence go: Liverpool finally got a domestic monkey off their backs, with a first league title in 30 years. But things didn’t go so well on the continent, as they suffered a 4-2 aggregate loss to Atletico Madrid in the first knockout round.
Kunle Ajao126 Posts
Kunle Ajao is a football writer and columnist for spotkick. Having made a toss of himself trying to actually play the game, he knew better and got a pen instead of boots. Spends a bit of his time with the game, and thinks he's a bit like Sid Lowe. He's not