One of the ironies of rebranding the European Cup to the Champions League in 1992 was the fact that the European Cup had been a true ‘Champions’ competition, with the only avenues for qualification being either winning one of Europe’s top flight leagues or being defending champions of the European Cup. For the 1997-98 season however, the Champions League expanded to included some league runners up, further expanding in the years since. A team no longer needs to be a ‘Champion’ to qualify for the competition, and 11 of the 21 winning teams since the expansion would not have qualified for the competition under the previous rules.
|Season||Champions League Winners||How Winners Qualified||Years Since Previous League or Champions League Success|
|1997-98||Real Madrid||La Liga Champions|
|1998-99||Manchester United||2nd in Premier League||2 years (1996-97 Premier League)|
|1999-00||Real Madrid||2nd in La Liga||2 years (1997-98 Champions League)|
|2000-01||Bayern Munich||Bundesliga Champions|
|2001-02||Real Madrid||La Liga Champions|
|2002-03||A.C. Milan||4th in Serie A||4 years (1998-99 Serie A)|
|2003-04||Porto||Primera Liga Champions|
|2004-05||Liverpool||4th in Premier League||15 years (1989-90 Division One)|
|2005-06||Barcelona||La Liga Champions|
|2006-07||A.C. Milan||3rd in Serie A||3 years (2003-04 Serie A)|
|2007-08||Manchester United||Premier League Champions|
|2008-09||Barcelona||3rd in La Liga||3 years (2005-06 Champions League)|
|2009-10||Inter Milan||Serie A Champions|
|2010-11||Barcelona||La Liga Champions|
|2011-12||Chelsea||2nd in Premier League||2 years (2009-10 Premier League)|
|2012-13||Bayern Munich||2nd in Bundesliga||3 years (2009-10 Bundesliga)|
|2013-14||Real Madrid||2nd in La Liga||3 years (2010-11 La Liga)|
|2014-15||Barcelona||2nd in La Liga||2 years (2012-13 La Liga)|
|2015-16||Real Madrid||2nd in La Liga||2 years (2013-14 Champions League)|
|2016-17||Real Madrid||Defending Champions|
|2017-18||Real Madrid||Defending Champions|
Nevertheless, this season will see either Liverpool or Tottenham Hotspur complete an unprecedented feat by winning the Champions League. Though plenty of teams have won the Champions League despite not being champions of either their domestic league or the Champions League, almost all could be considered recent champions, having gone no more than 4 years since winning a league or Champions League title. The one exception to that was the Liverpool side of 2004-05, who had gone 15 years since their last league title.
That Liverpool team were however accustomed to winning major trophies, albeit not the Premier League or Champions League. They had won the League Cup 2 years prior, and were only 4 years removed from winning a treble of the UEFA Cup, FA Cup and League Cup. By contrast, this year we have a Champions League Final being contested by two sides who haven’t won any major trophies for 7 years. For Liverpool, it is now 7 years since they last won the League Cup, 13 years since they won the FA Cup, 14 years since they won the Champions League and 29 years since their last league title. For Tottenham, the wait has been even longer, last winning the League Cup 11 years ago, the FA Cup 28 years ago and 58 years since their last league title.
Whilst both teams have endured trophy droughts previously never experienced by a Champions League winner, there are a number of other differences between the two clubs. Liverpool have at least come close to ending their trophy drought, finishing 2nd in the Premier League this season having reached the Champions League final last year. For Tottenham, it is now 4 years since their last appearance in any final, a League Cup Final defeat against Chelsea, and whilst they did finish 2nd in the Premier League in 2016-17, they were 7 points adrift of champions Chelsea, and only ever looked like the best of the rest that season.
Therefore whilst success for either club would be a remarkable feat, it would be an even more remarkable feat for Tottenham, given that they have not only not been winning trophies recently, they haven’t even been knocking on the door of winning trophies. There is a school of thought that this might be to their benefit going into the Final, given that Liverpool could be mentally scarred by their recent near misses, whilst Tottenham are unburdened by such experiences.
However, by doing so, Tottenham would be setting more Champions League history. Since being rebranded, five teams (Valencia, Bayer Leverkusen, Monaco, Arsenal and Chelsea) have reached their first European Cup/Champions League Final. None of those five teams emerged victorious on that occasion, and you have to go back to Red Star Belgrade in 1990-91 for the last team to win the competition on their first appearance in the Final. Yet as always with Football, the statistical gap between unprecedented and impossible is a significant one.