Barcelona are on the verge of an incredible feat in the Champion’s League. They have already eliminated the reigning domestic league champions from England, France and Germany (and if you include the group stage, Dutch and Cypriot). On June 6th they will have the chance to add the Italian champions to that list, as well as win their fifth Champions League trophy, which would tie them with Liverpool and Bayern Munich for third overall (Real Madrid has won 10, AC Milan, 7).
This unique accomplishment has some wondering whether (if they end the season as champions) this Barcelona side is the best Champions League squad ever. I wanted to look into the matter myself, but I wanted to do so in a more quantifiable way. I looked at all of the UEFA coefficients for the opponents that each champion played in the group and knockout stages, as well as their goal differential per match (as the number of matches has changed since the inception of the league). I wanted to decide what squads were the most dominant based on the level of completion they beat, as well as the degree to which they beat them. We will add up the numbers from each side, do some simple math, and get a final score. It is an imperfect system, as UEFA coefficients have been refined through the years, but it will at least give us a place to start, as the competition and nature of European football in general have rapidly evolved, as well.
1993 – 1998
I am beginning at the time the competition was rebranded the Champions League from the European Champion Clubs’ Cup. Aside from the issues with all of the general issues of comparing football present and past, the rules of Champions League have changed enough to make it hard to compare teams from one year to the next depending on the change. In 1993 there were only two groups, culled down from a series of playoffs, and no knockout stage, only a final between group winners. Marseille won in 1993, which was an incredible upset of A.C. Milan, but we can’t count it for our records because of the format.
The most dominant team of this era was certainly the 1994 champions, A.C. Milan. The format changed this year, keeping the two groups, but adding a semi-final to the knockout stage, allowing two clubs from each group to progress for the first time. Milan played some solid squads, making the degree of difficulty very high, while also dominating the score lines. The biggest reason they are considered one of the best Champions League teams of all times was due to their upset of Johan Cruyff’s FCB "dream team" in the final by a shocking 4-0 score line. They are considered by many the greatest Champions League squad to ever play.
Another aspect of this era that led to the degree of difficulty being so high was that the two groups came from a longer playoff system that meant only the best of the best would reach this stage. It is difficult to compare to the modern system, which is obviously much, much different. This period saw great fluctuation. In 1995 they added a quarterfinal to the knockout stage, allowing 8 clubs out of the group stage. In 1997, the competition made a huge change, allowing second place teams from the top leagues to compete, as well. They also added more groups, allowing the winners of each group as well as the highest scoring runner-ups to compete in the knockout stage.
Aside from A.C. Milan, Real Madrid’s 1998 squad was very dominant. They did not play the same level of competition that Milan did, and did not have to beat a "dream team", but they racked up comprehensive wins at every turn and beat three-in-a-row finalist Juventus to claim the title.
1999 saw a dramatic change to the UEFA coefficient, making it difficult to compare to the past scoring. The most dominant team of this era were the 2001 champs from Bayern Munich. They played a tough Arsenal team in the group stages, and in the knockout stages faced a very difficult road of Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Valencia (it was their second straight CL final at the time). The 2002 Real Madrid team faced slightly lesser competition, but also won much more comfortably than the Bayern squad of the year before. It’s a toss-up, really.
Over these years, there were not many dominant winners. Manchester United had an upset laden run to the title in 1999 that was impressive, but otherwise Real Madrid won in 2000 with a paltry +.363 average goal differential per match. They made it out of the group stage with a -1 goal differential and skated by the knockout stages winning many close matches in lucky fashion. A.C. Milan pulled off an even greater feat in 2003, winning the entire competition with a +2 overall goal differential (they made it out of the group stage with +1, won the quarterfinals with one goal, won the semis with a 1-1 away draw, and a 0-0 draw in the finals they won on penalties). It may have been the worst club side to win the Champions League. Barcelona had one of the strongest squads this year, but fell to Juventus in the quarterfinals.
2000 also saw the format change from a group stage filled via playoff to a two group stage format, with the best of the first group round moving on to the second. This didn’t last long, as the second group stage was eliminated in 2004, and a round of 16 tie was added to the knockout stage. Since this format has not changed since then, I’ll look at the top 10 teams from this modern era (2004-2015) individually. The UEFA coefficient was slightly modified in 2008, but for the most part we can quantifiably compare these squads to get an idea of which one had the most difficult and dominant CL season in the modern era.
12. A.C. Milan (2007) (Final Score: 15.586)
Now THIS was the worst club side to win a CL trophy. They played an abhorrent group of Lille, AEK Athens, and Anderlecht. They got a relatively small club in the first round in Celtic, but then had to face Bayern, Manchester Utd, and Liverpool in succession. They managed out of this weak group with a small goal differential of +4. There performances in the knockout rounds were better, though they needed extra time to beat Celtic. Overall they ended with a +10 goal differential for the whole competition. Even Bayern was slightly down by their standards this year, with a lower UEFA coefficient than typical for the German giants.
11. Porto (2004) (Final Score: 19.33)
Porto’s championship is remarkable in that it may be the last time we see a club outside of the 5 major European leagues win the CL, as well as introducing the world to the "special one". Porto faced a mixed bag of opponents, with a +1 goal differential in the group stages. While they may not have faced the toughest of competition, they handled the knockout stages wonderfully, beating Manchester United by a goal in the round of 16 before handling Lyon and Deportivo La Coruna before hammering Monaco in the final 3-0. Also of interest, Monaco’s 8-3 group win over Deportivo is still the highest scoring Champions League in the group or knockout rounds, and Monaco’s appearance in the final was also the last time a French team have made the finals.
10. Barcelona (2006) (Final Score: 20.155)
This was Barcelona’s first champions league win and second trophy for this competition overall. This team meant a lot to me, as I had fallen in love with Barcelona a few years earlier and was living in the city at that time, which was an incredible experience the night they beat Arsenal. It featured Ronaldinho as the star and saw the first regular glimpses of a teenage Messi. Barcelona played in a weak group stage (Werder Bremen, Udinese, Panathinaikos), but dominated with a +10 goal differential. They faced a relatively difficult knockout stage in which the wins kept coming, just much more closely, nicking Chelsea, Milan, and Arsenal by one goal along the way.
9. Liverpool (2005) (Final Score: 20.231)
This team is most remembered for one of the greatest sports comebacks in history when they defeated Milan on penalties after going down 3-0 in the first half. This was also Liverpool’s fifth and last CL title. Liverpool didn’t have the toughest group stage with Monaco, Olympiakos, and Deportivo, but they crushed Leverkusen in the round of 16 before beating top clubs Juventus, Chelsea, and AC Milan. They played tough clubs, but there was a sliver of luck in the air, too, as they got past all of them by one goal and it took a monumental comeback just to get to penalties in the final. It was one of the more exciting matches, but it wasn’t the most dominant of teams.
8. Manchester United 2008 (Final Score: 21.04)
Manchester’s run to the trophy began with a relatively easy group stage that they passed with flying colors (no defeats, +9 goal differential and 16 points). The knockout stages saw their most difficult tests in the semis (Barcelona) and final (Chelsea). They scraped past both, beating Barcelona by 1-0 aggregate, and needed penalties to best Chelsea. It wasn’t the most spectacular nor lucky run, but they did enough against good enough teams to earn this place. The final against Chelsea was the first ever all English final and third ever final between two clubs from the same country. Interestingly enough, Barcelona’s Bojan Krkic was the first person born in the 1990s to score a goal in the Champions League.
7. Barcelona 2009 (Final Score: 21.175)
The first CL trophy of the Pep era, this team ran roughshod over everyone they played until the semis. They cleared the group stage with +10 goals before beating Lyon 6-3 and Bayern Munich 5-1 in the knockout stages. They beat Chelsea with an away goal and cleared Manchester United by two in the finals. Although this club was dominant, they faced relatively easy competition all the way up until the quarterfinals, which hurt their overall score. You can’t really argue with results, as this was the first Spanish club to win the treble, an amazing feat. Manchester United featured in the finals for the second year in a row, which hadn’t been done in 10 years. Milan is the only club to defend their title, but did so in 1990 when the competition was still the European Cup.
6. Barcelona 2015 (Final Score: 22.775)
And here are our boys! I know that some will balk at seeing them this "low" on a list that only includes 11 teams or so, but this is where we are. Manchester City do not have the most robust UEFA coefficient this year, but they earned major points beating Bayern, PSG (twice), and potentially Juventus. Even Ajax is decently rated, with APOEL being the only minnow they’ve faced. It’s not the most difficult gauntlet per the coefficients. The jury is still out, of course, because the competition is not over, so this is subject to change. Also, I am not jinxing them. I’m not saying they will win, just, what if? Otherwise, the defeat of so many reigning league champions is quite impressive. They also have a great goal differential, getting out of the group stage up 10, then combing to beat Manchester City, PSG, and Munich by a combined 13 – 5. This is where I’m sure many people start questioning the use of stats. Yes, this is one of the most fun and exciting teams to watch. You can easily argue the eye-test and many other factors that are more subjective, and you wouldn’t be wrong to do so. Every run in the Champions League is affected by strategy, especially when a manager decides to rest players or "take it easy" because they’ve already wrapped up the group stage or essentially won a knockout round in the first leg. All teams face their share of tactical decisions, injuries, and luck (or lack of luck), but we can more objectively look at how dominant the team really was by looking at who they played and how much they beat them by. This is still one of my favorite teams in Barcelona history, especially because they’ve come back to assert their place at the head of the table after a few years off, but it still may not be the most impressive CL squad of this era.
5. Bayern Munich (2013) (Final Score: 22.836)
The last of the Bayern CL wins, this squad managed to keep a healthy goal differential while playing some very difficult matches. They had minnows in Lille and BATE Borisov, but otherwise had to face Valencia, Arsenal, Juventus, Barcelona, and Dortmund. Phew! They did not have the best goal differential coming out of the group stage, and needed away goals to beat Arsenal in the round of 16. However, they picked up major points by embarrassing Juventus and Barcelona by a combined 11-0.
4. Internazionale (2010) (Final Score: 23.328)
FCB fans will groan at this one, as the Mourinho led club saw Barcelona out of the competition. This year’s version of Inter was a Mourinho cream dream, doing nothing but playing defense and nicking goals on the way to a trophy. They made it out of the group stage with a measly +1 before parking buses all over the knockout round. They did not have the most impressive wins at first, but then handled Chelsea, Barcelona, and Bayern Munich relatively comfortably. They also had to face Barcelona four times throughout the competition, which adds to the overall degree of difficulty, with Barcelona being one of the top rated clubs that year. Defense wins championships, as they say.
3. Barcelona (2011) (Final Score: 24.049)
Blasphemy! I know this is completely wrong, as this was the best club side ever, but lets entertain the numbers. Firstly, the score is brought down by the group stages, where Barca faced Copenhagen, Panathinaikos, and Rubin Kazan, a very easy go of things. They did face Arsenal, Shakhtar in the knockouts, but the only squads they beat they were highly rated were Real Madrid and Manchester United. But boy were those teams highly rated and boy did they beat them. This squad actually made it out of the lackluster group stage with two draws and a +10 goal differential, but they tore through the knockout rounds, winning 16-6 total. It also brings up the idea of what makes a team dominant? Is it more goals score against conceded? Possession? Some other stat? A 3-1 win may not sound like the biggest thrashing ever, but the quality of Manchester and the way in which they were dismissed was very impressive. I still think goals are the best indicator of a team’s performance over time, at least if you’re trying to establish how dominant they are. Maybe we can go back and look at this later with expected goals or shooting efficiency, in which case I’m sure we’d see this Barcelona squad ranking as the highest ever.
2. Chelsea (2012) (Final Score: 24.585)
This Chelsea squad had the toughest road to the trophy per UEFA coefficients. They bested a group stage where Leverkusen and Valencia were rated respectfully, two knockout rounds against strong Napoli and Benfica clubs, and then major wins against the two highest ranked teams, Barcelona and Bayern. They did all of this while managing a +1 goal differential per game. No easy feat.
1. Real Madrid (2014) (Final Score: 25.453)
EW, I know. I’m sorry, cules. This is just what I’m being told by this calculator that is obviously broken and/or manufactured in Madrid. Last year’s winners faced a pretty standard group stage, with Juventus being the other big team, a decent Galatasaray, and the team to beat on, Copenhagen. After that the group stage got progressively harder, starting with Schalke, moving up to Dortmund, and then finally two very highly rated clubs in Bayern and Atletico. Madrid faced a very good lineup of teams, but it definitely was not the hardest road to the finals according to UEFA coefficients. What truly set this team apart from the rest was the method in which they won. They lost one match the entire tournament, a second leg match against Dortmund in which they started up 3-0 on aggregate. They cleared the group stage +15, and finished the tournament with a staggering overall goal differential of +31! It was by far the most dominate performance in this sense, as they averaged a +2.384 goal differential per game. 2011 Barcelona was second with 1.615.
It wasn’t fun seeing this Madrid side take the top spot, but when you slam Schalke 9-2, Bayern 5-0, and Atleti 4-1, I guess you earn it. Again, I would really like to do something similar looking at overall efficiency, though it would be an incredible amount of work. Just looking at UEFA coefficients and goal differential can tell us who had the most dominant run, but our memories of all those little things that these stats miss sometimes tell us otherwise. However, it is absolutely awesome that our team is in the top 10 on this list 3 times (4 if they win in June), showing they are the most dominant team of this era of Champions League. AC Milan’s squad in 1994 might have been the best in terms of what they accomplished compared to the contemporaries, and Madrid’s 2014 run was surely one of the most dominating ever. However, it’s interesting to note how often Barca have been involved even when not winning. The thing that set Milan apart in the first place was that they beat the dream team.
It’s hard to compare teams across years while playing different competition, but hopefully this think piece was enough to send you back to memories of Champions Leagues past. We can look at it from many different angles, so, what about you? What are some of your favorite CL squads of the last 20 years or so?