"But how can you be the best side in Europe and not even the best side in your domestic league?"
It's a very modern criticism of the current Champions League structure. Four teams from some of the big nations manage to sneak into the tournament with a chance to be crowned the best in Europe. Many of them favour European glory over domestic dominance, too.
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But the European Cup has a history of winners with subpar seasons in their leagues. Even as far back as the inaugural tournament...
1. Real Madrid 1955/56
In the first-ever European Club Championship, Real Madrid exceeded expectations by winning the tournament. Domestically, despite Alfredo Di Stefano’s league-leading 24 goals, they finished third – 10 points behind champions Athletic Bilbao and nine behind second-placed Barcelona.
Madrid went 2-0 down to French outfit Reims in the European final at Parc des Princes, but a match-winning strike from Hector Rial completed a comeback as the Spanish giants won 4-3. It was a result that set the tone for Madrid’s historic five-year dynasty in the competition.
2. Eintracht Frankfurt 1979/80
Despite hurdling Bayern Munich and Borussia Monchengladbach in the UEFA Cup semi-finals and final respectively, Eintracht Frankfurt were repeatedly conquered in the Bundesliga during the 1979/80 season. They eventually ended the campaign way down in ninth, 18 points behind champions Bayern.
Their European exploits more than made up for that, though. Down 3-2 on aggregate to Gladbach in the final, Fred Schaub’s strike in the 81st minute of the second leg was enough for Frankfurt to lift the trophy, securing their spot in the competition for the following year.
3. Tottenham Hotspur 1983/84
Tottenham Hotspur’s UEFA Cup success in 1984 came at the cost of a rather mediocre season in England’s top flight: champions Liverpool finished 19 points ahead of the north Londoners, whose eighth-place finish wouldn't have been enough to secure a European berth had they not defeated Anderlecht in the UEFA Cup final.
The Belgians – who, it was later learned, reached the final thanks to a spot of match-fixing – went toe-to-toe with Tottenham in a tie that finished 2-2 on aggregate. The English side ousted Anderlecht in a penalty shootout, though, thanks largely to Tony Parks’s tremendous save from Arnor Gudjohnsen’s (Eidur’s dad) spot-kick.
4. Inter Milan 1993/94
Inter Milan have never been relegated from Serie A, but they came as close as they possibly could in 1994, finishing just one point above the drop zone.
A disastrous domestic campaign didn't preclude success on the continent, however: Inter won the UEFA Cup after a 2-0 aggregate triumph (1-0 wins in both legs did the job) over Austria Salzburg in the final.
5. Schalke 1996/197
The 1996/97 Bundesliga season was one to forget for Schalke, who trailed champions Bayern Munich by a whopping 28 points in the final standings. The disappointment of finishing 12th was salvaged by their European exploits, though, as they overcame Roy Hodgson’s Inter in a UEFA Cup final shootout.
Schalke won the first leg 1-0, but Inter's Ivan Zamorano 84th-minute goal in the return match sent the final to penalties. Schalke converted all four of theirs, but Zamorano saw his effort saved by Jens Lehmann and Aron Winter shot wide – sending the trophy to Gelsenkirchen.
6. Real Madrid 1997/98
La Liga in 1997/98 was dominated by Barcelona, who won the title and finished 11 points above Real Madrid. Los Blancos’ top scorer, Fernando Morientes, managed just 12 goals, while head coach Jupp Heynckes was sacked at the end of the season despite leading the club to their first Champions League crown since 1966.
Given their poor performance in the league, Madrid’s eighth European title was a remarkable achievement. Defending champions Borussia Dortmund were defeated 2-0 on aggregate in the last four before the Spaniards edged out overwhelming favourites Juventus 1-0 in the final.
7. Real Madrid 1999/2000
As this list shows, Madrid have made a habit of recovering from domestic disappointment to become kings of the continent. The capital club finished fifth in 1999/2000, but eased the pain by claiming another European trophy.
Managed by Vicente del Bosque – who inspired some memorable performances from the likes of Raul, Fernando Redondo and Roberto Carlos – Madrid beat the two previous finalists, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively, before dismissing Valencia 3-0 in the first all-Spanish final.
8. Liverpool 2004/05
Luckily for them, they were a different beast altogether in Europe. Benitez’s side squeezed past Chelsea in the semis – the Blues finished 37 points above Liverpool in the top flight – and then produced a miracle in Istanbul as AC Milan’s 3-0 lead was cancelled out and the Reds won their fifth European Cup on penalties.
9. AC Milan 2006/07
Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan had an impressive squad in 2006/07 but still struggled in Serie A. Their Calciopoli-induced eight-point deduction didn't help, but the Rossoneri still ended the campaign 36 points behind city rivals and champions Inter.
Like Real Madrid, however, the Italian giants have European blood pumping through their veins; despite their domestic difficulties, they defeated Liverpool 2-1 in the Champions League final – avenging their dramatic loss two seasons prior.
10. Chelsea 2011/12
Chelsea’s Premier League showing in 2011/12 was their worst in a decade – the Blues finished 25 points behind league winners Manchester United in sixth place. To compensate, they went on a formidable run in the Champions League. Napoli’s 3-1 first-leg deficit was overturned in the last 16 under new caretaker manager Roberto Di Matteo, before the west Londoners vanquished Benfica in the quarter-finals.
Then Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were beaten astonishingly in the semi-finals. Having won the first leg 1-0, Chelsea went two goals and man down in the second at the Camp Nou – but a stirring two-goal comeback, finished in the 91st minute, sent them through.
Bayern Munich dominated the final on home soil, but a late equaliser from Didier Drogba sent the match to extra time. Neither side could find another goal – Arjen Robben missed a penalty – setting the scene for Drogba to become a hero once more by converting the winning spot-kick. Bonkers.
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