A brilliant XI that never won the Champions League: Totti, Ronaldo…

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Inter Milan's Ronaldo congratulates Real Madrid's Roberto Carlos (left) and Clarence Seedorf (right) on their 2-0 victory at the Santiago Bernabeu, Madrid, 16 September 1998

In modern-day football, the Champions League tends to be shared around the biggest and wealthiest clubs – but that doesn’t mean the biggest players always get their hands on the trophy.

Over the years, some of the greatest players in history have fallen agonisingly short of winning the competition, while some don’t even get that close.

We’ve rounded up a brilliant XI of the best players not to win the Champions League.

GK: Gianluigi Buffon

The only goalkeeper to ever win UEFA Club Footballer of the Year, Buffon has lost three finals with Juventus. He came agonisingly close in 2003, saving two penalties in a shootout against AC Milan at Old Trafford, only for Juve to miss with three of their own spot kicks.

“For me it’s a huge stimulus and I have to thank life for not letting me win (the Champions League) yet, otherwise I would ask myself why I still play,” he said back in September 2019 at the age of 42.

Still going three years later, it unfortunately looks as though that ship has sailed for the legendary Italian World Cup winner. He’s the only currently active player in our team, but we can’t imagine Serie B side Parma are going to be challenging it for Europe’s most prestigious honour any time soon.

RB: Lilian Thuram

Another losing finalist from 2003, Thuram was one of Europe’s most consistent defenders across a career with Monaco, Parma, Juventus and Barcelona, but his greatest successes came internationally with France.

He was perhaps unfortunate to retire a year before Barcelona triumphed in 2009, but Thuram had already signed a contract to join PSG before cancelling the deal and hanging up his boots after it was discovered he had a heart defect.

We were lucky enough to speak to Thuram last season about his transformation from athlete to activist. When he speaks, you listen.

READ: Lilian Thuram: ‘Racism is a trap; we must understand history to escape’

CB: Fabio Cannavaro

One of the standout defenders in the long lineage of classy Italian centre-halves, Cannavaro’s club career was somewhat nomadic aside from seven years at Parma.

The Ballon d’Or winner was part of the Inter side beaten in the 2003 Champions League semi-finals by fierce rivals AC Milan – suffering the cruel fate of losing on away goals despite both legs being played at the San Siro – and his three years at Real Madrid coincided with their six-season streak of failing to make it past the first knockout round.

CB: Laurent Blanc

There was a temptation to include Giorgio Chiellini, but we’ve plumped for Blanc just to avoid an all-Juventus back four.

At international level, Blanc won the World Cup and European Championships with France, but he couldn’t get his hands on the biggest domestic trophy, despite playing for the likes of Inter, Barcelona and Manchester United.

Reaching the semi-finals with United in 2002 was as far as Blanc ever reached in the competition, but he was part of Fergie’s side beaten by Bayer Leverkusen on away goals, with the defender partly at fault for a shaky first-leg display at Old Trafford.

Laurent Blanc sent off

READ: The Shithouse Files: Slaven Bilic v France, when he broke Blanc’s heart

LB: Gianluca Zambrotta

Zambrotta’s career mirrored that of opposite full-back Thuram’s as he was part of Juventus’ 2003 runners-up before joining reigning champions Barcelona in 2006, where they reached the semi-finals only to be beaten by a Paul Scholes-inspired Manchester United.

DM: Lothar Matthaus

An option in defence or midfield, Matthaus came closer than any other player on this list to winning the Champions League as Bayern Munich were two minutes away from glory against Manchester United in 1999.

Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had other ideas. Football, bloody hell.

CM: Michael Ballack

Heartbreak was a familiar feeling for Ballack, as the midfielder most notably finished as runner-up in the Bundesliga, German Cup, Champions League and World Cup with Bayer Leverkusen – or Bayer Neverkusen as they became known – and Germany.

A move to Bayern Munich allowed Ballack to get his hands on three league and cup doubles, but Ol’ Big Ears remained elusive, and he went on to lose another final with Chelsea in 2008.

No wonder he was so fuming at Tom Henning Ovrebo when Barcelona controversially dumped the Blues out in 2009.

READ: A forensic analysis of every refereeing mistake in Chelsea-Barcelona in 2009

CM: Pavel Nedved

Had Nedved not picked up a booking in the second leg of Juventus’ semi-final victory over Real Madrid in 2003, we might have had to take a few names out of this XI.

Nedved had done the unthinkable at Juventus, successfully replacing Zinedine Zidane, and ultimately scored the goal that knocked Zidane and his fellow reigning champions out of the competition.

Shorn of Nedved’s creativity in midfield, Juve failed to break Milan down in the final and were beaten on penalties at Old Trafford.

READ: A tribute to Pavel Nedved, the man who successfully replaced Zidane

CAM: Francesco Totti

We were spoiled for choice in the forward line, as Dennis Bergkamp, Roberto Baggio and Zlatan Ibrahimovic all miss out on a place in this XI.

We’re going to opt for Totti, however, as…well, as he’s Francesco F*ckin’ Totti.

ST: Gabriel Batistuta

A striker who struck fear into the heart of Premier League opponents thanks to his explosive goalscoring exploits against Manchester United and Arsenal in the competition, we’re opting for Batistuta ahead of some of the aforementioned names if only to get this partnership back together.

READ: Ronaldo & Batigol were the best strike partnership in history… for 45 mins

ST: Ronaldo

It remains an absolute travesty that O Fenomeno never lifted the European Cup, but we’ll always have that hat-trick at Old Trafford.

READ: A forensic analysis of Ronaldo’s hat-trick vs Manchester United in 2003


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A tribute to Pavel Nedved, the man who successfully replaced Zidane

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