Can Manchester United really retain the European Cup?

As the Moscow hangovers finally come to a close and we look firmly ahead to the new season, many reds are interested in one thing – can we be as good as last season? The 2007/08 season will go down as one of the greatest in the clubs history due to the magnificent talent on show, the dominance of certain games and the historical importance of how the double was won. Many reds can pinpoint important era’s and matches that supporters can always hold close to their heart – like the 1985 FA Cup final or the 1991 Cup Winners Cup final. United have progressed immensely in the past twenty five years but have never managed to retain the European Cup after wins in 1968 and 1999; could this be the year that is achieved?

Super Sparky scores twice

Brian Clough was quoted as saying the following “For all his horses, knighthoods and championships, he hasn’t got two of what I’ve got. And I don’t mean balls”, when talking about Sir Alex Ferguson. Although Clough has since passed away (obviously as he couldn’t have said it afterwards) and Fergie’s United were victorious in Moscow, which now puts them on an equal standing in terms on European Cup wins, the former Nottingham Forest manager was referring to winning the European Cup back to back – his only two achievements occurring in the 1978/79 and 1979/80 seasons. I’ve discussed previously the competitiveness of the European Cup as a cup format (for instance that same season, Ajax beat HJK Helsinki 16-2 on aggregate), however what Clough did with Nottingham Forest was quite remarkable considering the predicament he found himself in when he took over. So, in today’s modern game, how hard is it compared to Clough’s day to win back to back titles?

‘Seriously Brian this is really embarrassing.’

The last side to win back to back European Cups was Arrigo Sacchi’s AC Milan who beat Benfica 1-0 in Vienna back in 1990. That will be nineteen years ago this May. The previous double before that was indeed Clough’s Nottingham Forest, which was preceded by a double for Liverpool. The three years before that Bayern Munich dominated the European Cup winning it in 1974, 1975 and 1976. Ajax did the exact same thing for the previous three seasons prior with the emergence of ‘Total Football’ and a rebellious Johan Cruyff. So as you can clearly see the ‘retaining’ of the trophy was a lot more prominent in the old school cup format.

Johan Cruyff, football genius and gift from god (Halo included).

So to the big question, can Manchester United lift back to back European Cups in 2009? Statistics are against us due to the fact that the last back to back winners came nearly two decades ago and whom played a very different brand of football to United. However, football isn’t all about statistics (although we will go into that in a minute) and most Reds will agree that last season’s team was one of the best Old Trafford had ever seen. Why can’t the swashbuckling heroics of Tevez, Rooney, Ronaldo, Scholes and Giggs take on the might (again) of Chelsea’s Lampard, Drogba and Terry? Or for that matter anyone in Europe? Of course nothing is stopping United marching to another European crown in Rome come May, however what statistics prove is that this is a extremely difficult tournament to win, let alone retain it. The Real Madrid side of the 50’s had some marvellous players that really were head and shoulders above everyone else. I doubt any club will ever win five back to back European Cups ever again. The Italians didn’t really challenge until the introduction of catenaccio (legendary Inter manager Helenio Herrera would take credit for this defensive masterstroke) and the birth of the libero, which would eventually become undone by Celtic in 1967. We all know that Manchester United were the first English club to win the trophy at Wembley in 1968, which was then followed by an AC Milan victory in 1969.

Herrera – Internazionale manager who could be a right bastard to players

So to the present day and the past eighteen winners. The table below highlights the winner of the trophy in the season and where they finished the following season:

Season Winner Pos of last winner
1991 Red Star Belgrade AC Milan – 1/4 final
1992 Barcelona Red Star Belgrade – 2nd in Group stage
1993 Olympique Marseille Barcelona – 2nd round
1994 AC Milan Olympique Marseille – banned
1995 Ajax AC Milan – Final
1996 Juventus Ajax – Final
1997 Borussia Dortmund Juventus- Final
1998 Real Madrid Borussia Dortmund – 1/2 finals
1999 Manchester United Real Madrid – 1/4 finals
2000 Real Madrid Manchester United – 1/4 finals
2001 Bayern Munich Real Madrid – 1/2 finals
2002 Real Madrid Bayern Munich – 1/4 finals
2003 AC Milan Real Madrid – 1/2 finals
2004 FC Porto AC Milan – 1/4 finals
2005 Liverpool FC Porto – Last 16
2006 FC Barcelona Liverpool – Last 16
2007 AC Milan Barcelona – Last 16
2008 Manchester United AC Milan – Last 16

So the 2003 winners, AC Milan, were the last team to reach the quater finals back in 2004 when they were eliminated by Deportivo (in a remarkable game). It appears that the winners of the trophy do indeed struggle the season after – whether it be too high expectations or specific problems in the club. To be honest, I don’t subscribe to this. Manchester United’s first xi would, I feel, beat any of those Champions League winning sides since 2000 so I really do not see why we can’t go on and win it again. One should also note that Valencia, got to the final in 2000 and 2001, losing both to Real Madrid and Bayern Munich respectively. So it’s not impossible to get to the Champions League final twice, would a better side with a tad more luck have done better than Valencia? Then there is not forgetting Juventus, a side that has been in the final a number of times but only won the trophy twice – 1985 and 1996. Juventus beat Ajax in 1996 and then got to the final twice in 1997 and 1998. So it is clear to see that although extremely difficult, it is not impossible for a side to win back to back trophies. This blog hasn’t even looked at the expansion of the Champions League format, which does include teams that can let their domestic form dip in order to progress in the Champions League – in the knowledge that they will finish fourth and thus qualify for the tournament (and the TV earnings) next season, naming no names there.

So can United do it in Rome? I don’t see why not. The statistics ‘post four team entry’ aren’t good, but with Fergie fighting off Real Madrid for Ronaldo, Anderson and Nani progressing well and youngsters such as Rafael, Fabio and Campbell knocking on the door – the squad looks to be in good shape and ambitious. Last season was memorable for so many reasons and it shall never be forgotten, but i’m confident that we can be the first side in the Champions League format to win back to back trophies.

May 21st 2008 will never be forgotten but can this group of players go one better than 1999 and retain the title? I’m looking forward in finding out.

6 Comments on Can Manchester United really retain the European Cup?

  1. Yes we can do it, I really believe it. We will not do it though without increasing our strikers. We need another striker with stealth and who can score regularly on the big stage and in the premiership. But then everybody knows that. I truly hope we do it, because I love to see United making history. A lot of it is down to luck though, we have the best defence in Europe, but if any of them get injured, our reserve strength is not the same quality, even though Fergie says differently. We all know though!.

  2. Of course we can do it… this Manchester United side has what most of those other CL winning sides didn’t have, Youth! Our young players are going to develop this year, and with the experience of winning the champions league, they will be more confident when facing tough opponents.

    Seriously, when we start scoring goals like we did last season, I can’t really see any team beating us, cuz our defence is rock solid. Brown, Rio, Vida, Evra are just sublime!! if we can maintain that defensive discipline in the CL and we get the out and out striker we need, there’s no stopping us!!!

  3. What do you think of the stats provided though regarding the past four winners? Or do you think that this is irrelevant due to the side that we have? As much as I’d like to think we can retain the trophy it is a tough ask.

  4. It’s a big ask indeed. Can we win it, yes, with the addition of a striker as stated, we should go in as the favourites.

    Will we? Efforts are always doubled against the holders of any trophy, and sides with reputations of much success are always treated in that manner.

    Our advantage over the last few teams to fail at the first knockout hurdle is that on paper we have a far better team, potentially. I am completely confident and hopeful we have enough to succeed in the competition but being a cup competition it is always important to remember the factor of luck – especially considering how many second rate teams are allowed in the competition.

    In it’s previous format, even up to where it changed irreversibly in 2001, allowing third and fourth placed sides in, it was much more difficult to win. In this day and age, the quality of teams overall has improved but the sacrifice of that is the result of having Liverpool winning it in 2005, a team that was so substandard it hasn;t won a domestic title for 18 years.

    The irony is that the competition was at its hardest between 1992 and 2000, when the elite were truly seperated from the crap. Liverpool won it when it was perfectly legitimate if they beat 7 pub teams to the final or if they qualified with Smicer as their starring marauding forward. And they have the gaul to display themselves as Britains leading team..!!

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