Manchester City continue their UEFA Champions League defence with the first leg of a Round of 16 tie at Copenhagen this week.
City overcame RB Leipzig, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid in the knockout stages of last season’s competition before Rodri scored the only goal to sink Inter Milan at the Ataturk Stadium, securing the club’s maiden success in Europe’s top competition.
The 2024 final will take place at Wembley, where Guardiola and City have enjoyed plenty of success.
“I’d like to say that for our club to win the Champions League is incredible,” the former Bayern and Barcelona boss said at the start of this season’s campaign. “But in terms of the Champions League, how many teams have won it once? A lot have won two, three, four, five. In perspective, we did nothing special. Just one. [But] we didn’t have it and we’re proud.
“It’s easier [to retain the title]. It’s most difficult to win the first one. It’s something incredible for us, the first time in history, but it’s just once. Let’s go.”
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It’s entertaining to contrast this bullish early autumn tone with the City boss being in battle mode as we approach the business end of the season. Prior to his team beating Everton 2-0 on February 10, he said the odds were “99.99 per cent” against a repeat of last season’s treble.
There are reasons to subscribe to Guardiola’s theory that the first title is the hardest one, but retaining Europe’s top club trophy has proved to be anything but easy over the years. His own celebrated Barcelona side followed up their 2008/09 and 2010/11 triumphs with heart-breaking semifinal defeats.
“The competition gives us a new challenge, so at least try. Just like Real Madrid or the [Arrigo] Sacchi period with Milan, they did it again in a row,” he added. Let’s have a look at those two champion sides and the others that City hope to emulate in 2023/24.
Back-to-back Champions League winners: Teams to win consecutive European titles
These are the teams to win the UEFA Champions League or its predecessor, the European Cup, in consecutive seasons.
Real Madrid (2015/16, 2016/17, 2017/18)
Numerous great collectives, from Milan, Ajax and Juventus in the 1990s, through to Manchester United and Guardiola’s Barca a decade later, all failed in their attempts to become back-to-back winners in the Champions League era. The curious thing about Real Madrid’s history-making run over the course of three seasons was that, with the arguable exception of the 2016/17 campaign when they came from behind to thump Juve 4-1 in the final in Cardiff, it was hard to make a case for Zinedine Zidane’s side being the best in Europe.
However, they were a team perfectly built for the high-pressure demands of knockout football, with an attack helmed by an ever-ravenous Cristiano Ronaldo. They were masters of the big moments in the biggest matches. A 2016 final win on penalties at San Siro over city rivals Atletico Madrid wasn’t easy on the eye; Gareth Bale’s stupendous overhead kick to break Liverpool’s hearts in Kyiv two years later certainly was.
AC Milan (1988/89, 1989/90)
The other side namechecked by Guardiola and a team guided by one of his tactical and philosophical touchstones. Sacchi’s marriage of Italian fundamentals in defence with a co-ordinated and intensive high-pressing style meant few could live with his Milan in their pomp.
Dutch superstars Ruud Gullit and Marco van Basten each scored twice as 1985/86 winners Steaua Bucharest were demolished 4-0 at Camp Nou in 1989. The following year’s showpiece in Vienna proved to be a tighter affair as another Netherlands international, future Barcelona coach Frank Rijkaard, produced a solo goal midway through the second half against Benfica.
Nottingham Forest (1978/79, 1979/80)
Nottingham Forest won their only English title when they topped Division One in 1977/78, a year after claiming promotion. Over the next two seasons, an incredible fairy-tale under the inimitable Brian Clough and Peter Taylor only become more far-fetched.
Trevor Francis scored the only goal in first-half stoppage time as Forest beat Malmo 1-0 in Munich in 1979, the England striker repaying the faith that saw Clough make him British football’s first £1 million player. In the 1980 final at the Santiago Bernabeu, a formidable Hamburg side boasting Francis’ international teammate Kevin Keegan were downed by an excellent 20th-minute goal from winger John Robertson.
Liverpool (1976/77, 1977/78)
Forest’s back-to-back wins came in the middle of a six-season run when the European Cup never left English hands. Three of those successes were down to Liverpool, who began the streak in 1976/77 with a 3-1 final win over Borussia Monchengladbach. The game at the Stadio Olimpico was a rematch of the two-legged 1973 UEFA Cup final that the Reds also won.
Bob Paisley’s team retained their title when Kenny Dalglish’s second-half goal saw off Club Brugge at Wembley 12 months later.
Bayern Munich (1973/74, 1974/75, 1975/76)
The English dynasty was preceded by two others in the 1970s, with the great Bayern Munich side captained by Franz Beckenbauer and featuring the likes of Sepp Maier, Gerd Muller and Uli Hoeness winning three in a row.
They needed two bites at Atletico Madrid in 1974, with Hans-Georg Schwarzenbeck’s equaliser in the final minute of extra time forcing a 1-1 draw in Brussels and a replay two days later back at Heysel Stadium. Hoeness and Muller each scored twice in an emphatic 4-0 win, with the latter crowing a 2-0 victory over Leeds United at the Parc des Princes a year later. Franz Roth opened the scoring that day and he netted the only goal at Hampden Park against Saint-Etienne as Bayern made it three from three in 1976.
Ajax (1970/71, 1971/72, 1972/73)
The Beckenbauer dynasty replaced that of fellow great Johan Cruyff and Ajax, who saw off Panathinaikos 2-0 at Wembley in 1971 to begin a run of three final victories where they did not concede a goal. Inter Milan fell foul of Total Football mastery by the same scoreline in 1972, Cruyff scoring two in a victory that was particularly sweet as it came on the home ground of bitter rivals and 1970 European Cup winners Feyenoord.
Johnny Rep’s fourth-minute goal was enough for Ajax to sink another Serie A giant in Belgrade a year later, where Juventus were beaten 1-0.
Inter Milan (1963/64, 1964/65)
Real Madrid dominated the early years of the European Cup but they were no match for Helenio Herrera’s Inter in the 1964 final, where Sandro Mazzola scored twice in a 3-1 win.
Brazilian winger Jair gave the Nerazzurri a 1-0 lead shortly before halftime in the 1965 showpiece on home turf at the San Siro. Benfica had no answer to the defensive mastery of Herrera’s famed catenaccio system.
Benfica (1960/61, 1961/62)
The most infamous retained title of them all. Bela Guttmann’s Benfica came from 1-0 down to win a topsy-turvy final at the Wankforf Stadium 3-2 against Barcelona in 1961. Clasico rivals Real Madrid were then dispatched in similarly show-stopping fashion in Amsterdam. This time, Benfica were 2-0 and 3-2 down before powering clear thanks to a Eusebio brace after halftime in the 1962 final.
After that triumph, legend has it that Guttmann asked the Benfica board for a pay rise. When they refused, he resigned and placed a curse on the Lisbon club, proclaiming they would not be champions of Europe for another 100 years. They have since played five European Cup finals without success, as well as losing three UEFA Cup/Europa League title matches.
Real Madrid (1955/56, 1956/57, 1957/58, 1958/59, 1959/60)
Arguably still the most famous European champions of all time and an unprecedented streak that means Madrid remain synonymous with the competition in a manner that is incomparable to any other club. Of their record 14 wins, five came in the first five seasons of the competition’s existence.
Alfredo Di Stefano, Paco Gento and Ferenc Puskas were among the greats to shine for Los Blancos in this era. They saved the best until last as Di Stefano scored three and Puskas four in a remarkable 7-3 victory over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 final at Hampden Park. Puskas, who scored all Madrid’s goals in that 5-3 loss to Benfica that ended this dynasty, remains the only player to score a hat-trick in two separate European Cup/Champions League finals.
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