The Champions League is a glorious trophy to lift aloft, some managers getting lucky enough to get their mitts on Big Ears multiple times, while for others it has proven ever elusive in their quest for European domination.
For housekeeping purposes, each of the managers featured has participated in the post-1992 Champions League – purely as it’s unfair to involve gaffers who’ve never even had a crack at winning it.
So, no place for World Cup winner Joachim Löw, who’s picked many things, but never a line-up for a Champions League game; nor Liverpool legend Bill Shankly, who predates our timespan. Got it? Right...
11. Antonio Conte (Juventus, Chelsea, Inter Milan, Tottenham)
Conte is rightly viewed as one of the continent’s best managers, yet the rather large blot on his copybook is a poor record in Europe. A 2012/13 quarter-final with Juventus is the furthest he’s ever taken a club in the Champions League, despite Conte’s domestic trophy tally being as rich and plentiful as his lustrous hair.
After winning Serie B with Bari, Conte kick-started the current Juventus dominance of Serie A with a hat-trick of league titles. A strong spell as Italy manager was followed by a Premier League title and an FA Cup with Chelsea, before heading back to Italy with Inter Milan.
Ending Juventus' run of nine consecutive titles, Conte's Inter side stormed to Serie A - but he was soon leaving the club after disagreements with the board. Being at Tottenham hasn't helped his chances of Champions League glory, though, which will likely always be a talking point until he makes his mark in the competition.
10. Unai Emery (Spartak Moscow, Valencia, Sevilla, PSG, Arsenal, Villarreal)
While Emery's European record in Paris was remarkable for the wrong reasons (source: Barcelona 6-1 PSG), the Spanish gaffer has done well in Europe elsewhere, most notably at Sevilla and Villarreal.
At Sevilla, Emery won the Europa League three times in succession, besting Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool in 2016 to complete his hat-trick. Previously he’d taken a financially struggling Valencia to Champions League qualification on three occasions. Struggling to make an imprint at PSG ensured he didn't last long, while he always faced an uphill battle replacing Arsene Wenger at Arsenal.
The Spaniard found his feet once again at Villarreal, though, winning the Europa League in 2021 before taking the Yellow Submarine to the Champions League semi-finals, beating Juventus and Bayern Munich en route. While his side lost to Liverpool, it was certainly a compelling performance.
9. Didier Deschamps (Monaco, Marseille)
Some claim that France won the 2018 World Cup due to the sheer depth of their talent rather than any tactical brilliance on their manager's part. But far be it from us to ignore the pinnacle of international glory on a manager’s CV, plus – 14 years previously – Deschamps did do something special in the Champions League.
It got lost in the story of Jose Mourinho winning the competition with Porto – because of course it did – but Monaco also had a good run in 2003/04. Deschamps’ overachievers knocked out Real Madrid and Chelsea to make up the Champions League’s most unlikely final. Monaco lost 3-0 to Porto, but a World Cup win and an against-the-odds Champions League runners-up spot takes ‘the water carrier’ into our top 10.
8. Otto Rehhagel (Werder Bremen, Kaiserslautern)
King Otto’s Champions League record isn’t really the stuff of royalty, the sum total being a good run to the quarter-finals with unfancied Kaiserslautern in 1998/99. Yet the German’s record elsewhere is the stuff of greatness.
His 14 years at Werder Bremen are viewed as the club’s golden age: Rehhagel reeled in two Bundesliga titles, a pair of DFB-Pokals, three German Supercups, plus European success with the 1992 Cup Winners’ Cup.
Rehhagel then pulled off the ultimate international upset by managing Greece to Euro 2004 glory; a triumph we sincerely admire almost as much as we sincerely never, ever, want to watch any of those matches again.
7. Kenny Dalglish (Newcastle)
A three-time European Cup winner as a player, Dalglish’s managerial record in this competition amounts to a modest six games with Newcastle in the late 1990s. However, the big asterisk is that Dalglish took a superb Liverpool side to a host of domestic honours in the late 1980s, while English clubs were banned from Europe post-Heysel.
After leading the club through the Hillsborough disaster, and winning a league title in 1990, Dalglish abruptly resigned in 1991. He’d later rubber-stamp his greatness as a gaffer by winning the Premier League with Blackburn in 1994/95, becoming just the fourth manager to conquer the English championship with two different clubs.
7. Mircea Lucescu (Galatasaray, Shakhtar Donetsk, Inter Milan, Besiktas, Rapid Bucharest, Dynamo Kiev)
Only six managers have taken charge of a century of Champions League games and Romania’s Lucescu is one of that elite group. The fact that he’s never come close to winning it – quarter-final spots with Galatasaray and Shakhtar Donetsk being his best finishes – in no way reflects his coaching ability.
Outside of a brief spell with Inter in Italy, Lucescu hasn’t exactly managed the type of clubs you expect to win this competition. Yet he has had outstanding success.
A league winner in multiple countries with various clubs, the 73-year-old Lucescu pulled off his greatest feat at Shakhtar. There he merged no-nonsense Ukrainian defenders and freezing Brazilian attackers into a surprisingly cohesive unit, winning eight league titles, plus the club’s first European trophy with the 2009 UEFA Cup.6. Max Allegri (Milan, Juventus)
6. Massimiliano Allegri (Milan, Juventus)
Allegri’s appointment was greeted with scratched heads – and even some chucked eggs – when he was given the Juventus job in 2014. After all, his spell at Milan had started with a Serie A win in 2011, but eventually saw him sacked with a disorganised club in 11th. Yet Allegri extended Juve’s domestic dominance while turning them into a European force during his first spell in charge - fortunes have been slightly different since returning in 2021.
He masterminded wins over the best sides in Europe and led the Old Lady to two Champions League finals in 2015 and 2017, despite losing key players such as Paul Pogba. Despite the plethora of talent Juve have had in the past decade, though, Allegri hasn't managed to take his name off this list and cement his place as one of Europe’s best modern managers.
4. Bobby Robson (Porto, Newcastle)
England’s greatest managerial export. The avuncular Robson took the Three Lions to a World Cup semi-final and won a host of competitions in England, Portugal, Spain and the Netherlands – all while not actually knowing the first names of any of his players.
His success in European competition wasn’t to be sniffed at either. A UEFA Cup victory with Ipswich in 1981 was followed by a 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup triumph through a Ronaldo-inspired Barcelona. There was a nice Indian summer to his career too, as Robson led his hometown club Newcastle into the Champions League twice, back when Mike Ashley was still in his nappy power-drinking milk.
3. Valeriy Lobanovskyi (Dynamo Kiev)
“Lobanovskiy's influence on me was so profound that I still often see him in my dreams,” said Andriy Shevchenko, one of the Ukrainian master’s most famous pupils. But you could fill a library with tributes to a coach who defined that hackneyed phrase: he was ahead of his time.
A believer in science, analytics and periods of high-pressing intensity, Lobanovskiy managed the Soviet Union at two World Cups and took them to the runners-up spot at Euro ‘88. Yet it’s his three spells at Dynamo Kiev that define him, involving 13 league titles, plus two Cup Winners’ Cups triumphs.
He’d probably top this list if he’d reached a European Cup/Champions League final. However, the closest Lobanovskiy got was in 1999 when he led a brilliant Kiev side spearheaded by Shevchenko to the semi-finals, and an agonising, 4-3 aggregate loss to Bayern Munich.
2. Arsene Wenger (Monaco, Arsenal)
Forget the last decade of slow decline at Arsenal (albeit a slump which involved three FA Cup wins): Wenger had established his greatness by then. A trio of Premier League titles – two doubles plus an unbeaten season – were achieved with dazzling elan, and on a relative budget that shamed some of Europe’s biggest spenders.
Wenger helped modernise Arsenal, yet his European record was curiously mixed. There were remarkable victories – a 5-1 destruction of Inter, a win over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu – but never a triumphant campaign.
Arsenal under Wenger reached the UEFA Cup final in 2000 (a shootout loss to Galatasaray) and the club’s first Champions League final in 2006 (a 2-1 loss to Barcelona). Close, but no cigar for a manager who's racked up more Champions League wins than anyone aside from Alex Ferguson and Carlo Ancelotti.
1. Diego Simeone (Atletico Madrid)
Simeone still has plenty of time to define his managerial legacy, but, judging strictly on which managers have come closest to a Champions League victory only to have it snatched away, he tops this list at a canter.
Simeone was twice a hair’s breadth from winning Europe’s top prize (we don’t mean the song contest, although we wouldn’t put that past this fearsome competitor). In 2014, Atletico were 1-0 up over Real Madrid until Sergio Ramos equalised three minutes into injury time. A knackered Atleti were punished in extra time.
Los Colchoneros came even closer two years later, losing to Madrid on a penalty shootout. Agonising, yet Simeone has proved he’s not just a nearly man. He beat Real in the 2013 Copa del Rey Final, then twice broke the Spanish duopoly with a La Liga victory in 2014 and 2021, respectively. A pair of Europa League wins (2011 and 2018) underline that he’s a special coach, albeit one still lacking a certain big-eared trophy for now.
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