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Ranked! The 20 greatest cult Champions League sides

Champions League cult heroes
(Image credit: Future)

It takes something special to become a Champions League legend. It takes something perhaps even more so to become a cult hero.

And the cult teams of European football are hard to quantify. These are the clubs who lit something inside of you, regardless of their level of talent. The clubs that entertained, did something unique - maybe they did none of the above and just warmed your heart because of it. 

You've seen a thousand eulogies for Pep Guardiola's Barcelona; debates of whether Sir Alex's '99 or '08 stars were better. Well here's to all those misfits at Ligue 1 clubs who stumbled into the quarters, and the Bundesliga stars who had no right getting to the final. 

For our list of the greatest-ever cult sides in the Champions League, we've excluded winners. We've ranked them purely on nostalgia, fun and a little of their ability. We've considered teams collectively and individually. And this is what we've got...

20. Paris Saint-Germain, 1995/96

These days, Paris Saint-Germain are the U2 of football: painfully uncool, no matter how hard they try. Exactly the kind of club to force you to download their new away shirt. Back in the 90s, however, they were every hipster's choice.

Even those navy blue shirts were a brighter shade; the badge looked like the logo for a bad TV channel. George Weah played up front with L'Oreal frontman David Ginola out left. The talismanic Rai was behind at no.10: this was a culture club with style fitting of the French capital. 

PSG stormed their group, beat Barcelona in the quarters and were eventually turned over in 1996 by AC Milan, like everyone was back when Milan were good. And that was the last we heard of PSG for a bit: they won the Cup Winners Cup the following season and were thwarted in the final a season later by Barcelona. 

That only added to the mystique, as this curious club later signed Jay-Jay Okocha and Ronaldinho, not making it back into the big time for a while. Honestly? We kind of wish they hadn't rebranded as the Nike pet project ft. Neymar that they are now. Ginola is still cooler than Messi, too. 

14. Arsenal, 2010/11

In 2006, Arsenal got the Champions League final with a 4-5-1, relying on solidity and the genius of Thierry Henry. And it needs pointing out: Arsene Wenger's greatest-ever European team was also his most boring - they didn't concede goals but they didn't exactly thrill, either.

Not like 2011's vintage. This was an Arsenal team with a 19-year-old Jack Wilshere running the show; Cesc Fabregas was captain, while Tomas Rosicky, Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin provided the flair. Things weren't nearly as stable at the back but the Emirates seemed to rock in a way that it hadn't since the Invincibles.

This was the season that Barcelona were beaten in north London and the team remains one of the most fun and most fluid that Wenger ever constructed. It was never going to win the Champions League - but it certainly left its mark. 

18. Barcelona, 1993/94

Johan Cruyff seems a world away from the Champions League era. He was barely pirouetting in colour for the Netherlands - so the fact that his Barca team were a mainstay of the early Champions League years is trippy to say the least.

The 1992 champions returned in subsequent years, ever more desperate to get their hands on Old Big Ears again, like a TV villain camply rubbing its hands. Barca still had Stoichkov and Romario, Guardiola and Koeman - they still played beautiful football - and they were still a club of panache and incredible technique. But the fact that they weren't unbeatable back then gave them an aura that they were something a little different. They were renegades. Rebels. They were the exception rather than the rule.

Now, everyone has been inspired by Barcelona. But these were simpler times, the 90s, when Cruyff could smoke in his technical area and Guardiola had thicker eyebrows. The Dream Team were the stuff of legend. 

17. Inter Milan, 2004/05

That Inter Milan drew 12 of their first 15 Serie A fixtures should tell you that the 2004/05 season was a bit of a weird one. 

With Roberto Mancini at the wheel for the first time, Inter boasted perhaps the most cult mix of strikers that Italian club football has seen this century. Julio Cruz, Adriano Alvaro Recoba, Obafemi Martins and Christian Vieri all lined up for the Nerazzurri that season - backed up by Kily Gonzalez, Edgar Davids, Giorgos Karagounis, Juan Sebastien Veron, Andy van der Meyde, Esteban Cambiasso and Dejan Stankovic. Crikey.

The iconic shot from their Champions League campaign is one of disgrace, mind. Rui Costa and Marco Materazzi stood chatting on the San Siro pitch during a Milan derby, as missiles were thrown and fireworks set off. Still, what a team - and what an third kit, while we're at it... 

16. Villarreal, 2005/06

Juan Roman Riquelme spent one season at Villarreal. He was majestic for the entire campaign, helping the Yellow Submarine to the semi-finals of the Champions League for the first time. And then he missed a decisive penalty as Arsenal beat them to get to Paris. 

Stories like those fuel legends. Manuel Pellegrini's team were fantastic in 2006, knocking out Rangers and Inter Milan in the knockouts. Diego Forlan was in fine fettle wearing the no.5 shirt, Alessio Tacchinardi was on loan from Juventus, while Marcos Senna was imperious in the engine room. A 21-year-old Santi Cazorla was there, too.

It may have ended in heartbreak for the Spanish minnows but theirs is one of the most memorable underdog stories in the competition's recent history. 

15. Juventus, 1997/98

Juventus lost twice in the league in the whole of 1997/98. This is one of the most outrageously talented football teams that ever existed and frankly, how they lost back-to-back European finals is anyone's guess.

Marcello Lippi was in charge, with Alessandro Del Piero and Filippo Inzaghi up front; Zinedine Zidane was just behind them, with Edgar Davids, Antonio Conte and Didier Deschamps in midfield. That's utterly ridiculous, in any era. 

This is the Juventus that everyone fell in love with; a Juve of style, expression and grace, long before the Old Lady bored everyone to death with deep blocks under Max Allegri. OK, so they may only have won one Champions League in the 90s - but we wouldn't swap that for the memories this side created. 

14. Atalanta, 2019/20

Atalanta didn't win their first four Champions League games in their maiden campaign - yet just they came minutes from knocking moneybags Paris Saint-Germain out of the competition in Lisbon during lockdown. 

They were just nothing like we'd ever seen before. From the man-marking and the back three to Papu Gomez darting from side to side like a bumblebee, Atalanta were just insanely fun to watch (and still are). Duvan Zapata and Luis Muriel also grabbed headlines, while the madcap wing-backs became a reference point for some of Europe's brightest tactical minds. When Josip Ilicic netted four times to send Valencia out of the knockouts 8-4 on aggregate, we all knew we weren't witnessing your average park-the-bus Italian side, right?

A team so small that they couldn't play their home games in Bergamo, La Dea might not ever achieve too much in Europe. Fair play to them though - their status as a cult favourite is already assured.

20. Dynamo Kiev, 1998/99

In footballing terms, the world is now fully discovered. Gone are the days of watching a 3pm World Cup to find new players: no one is new and everyone has a blue Wikipedia link. 

But things were different at the turn of the century. English speakers have only just started pronouncing it Dee-NAR-moh, so imagine the shock at discovering Serhiy Rebrov and Andriy Shevchenko were hiding away in eastern Europe. 

It was one of the deadliest strike duos of the modern era, supplemented by crosses from future Milan star Kakha Kaladze and future Arsenal lump Oleg Luzhny. They made the Champions League final four in 1999 - and they were marvellous, beating Real Madrid en route. 

12. Real Madrid 2002/03

Real Madrid are plenty of things but they are not cool. They have never had a kit that you've been nostalgic for in later years; the closest they have to a genuine cult footballer is probably Guti. They are the mainstream that Barcelona have kicked against for decades. 

But the 2002/03 side - the Galactico squad that achieved nothing in Europe - has become a cult side despite itself. If they had have won the Champions League, no one would have cared: it's the fact they didn't they took on a higher elevation. Their iconic moments are that Ronaldo hat-trick at Old Trafford, a 3-1 mauling of AC Milan in the group stage (though it hardly mattered) and a semi-final first-leg masterclass over Juventus, despite losing the second leg.

This Real side became cool because they played like winning wasn't the be-all and end-all - it was all about putting on a show. Of course, that wasn't what Florentino Perez intended though, was it? In the years that followed, they slowly and sadly lost that cult aspect. 

11. Auxerre, 2003/04

Perhaps Auxerre made it onto this list because they had PlayStation as their sponsor, or perhaps it was because their no.9 had a spider's web dyed into his hair. Either way, they're a forgotten gem of French football. 

Auxerre were managed by Guy Roux who had been in charge for decades, led up top by a young Djibril Cisse and in Phillippe Mexes and Jean-Alain Boumsong, they had a genuinely solid defensive partnership before career decisions altered other perceptions. This was a tiny team who punched so above their weight that they made it to the top table of European football - and even though their Champions League dream last six matches, they were great value. 

Les Diplomates are in Ligue 2, now. They no longer have a goalkeeper called Fabian Cool. The Good Times Express left the station and hasn't been back for a while. But in 2003, they were phenomenal. 

10. Valencia, 2000/01

Valencia were the Atletico Madrid of their day (in that they were Spanish and lost a couple of finals) but just trawling through the squad, there were technicians and personalities to make even Diego Simeone weep. 

Curly-haired playmaker Pablo Aimar. Peroxide prince Santiago Canizares, who ruled himself out of the 2002 World Cup when he sliced his metatarsal trying to catch a glass aftershave bottle with his foot. Vicente on the left-wing, the smoother-than-smooth Gaizka Mendieta pulling strings. Big bad John Carew in attack; Roberto Ayala locking strikers in his dungeon at the back. It's not a pre-requisite that every cult team has to have Didier Deschamps - but it certainly helps.

It genuinely looked like their year, right until they had to face a German team on pennos. That Valencia side might not have their name on the Champions League but they left an indelible mark on our hearts. 

9. Monaco, 2017/18

In all probability, Leonardo Jardim probably had no idea quite how good his Monaco side were when he started the season. It was perhaps only when they smashed Manchester City that any of us actually wondered whether these French minnows were actually world-beaters. 

The attack was accidentally flawless. A teenage Kylian Mbappe partnering a world-weary Radamel Falcao, back to prove he was still prolific after successive confusing loans to Manchester United and Chelsea. Bernardo Silva balling out wide on one side; Thomas Lemar on the other. Fabinho and Bakayoko in the centre; Joao Moutinho to bring in for depth. 

It was frankly ridiculous. A principality club just happened to stumble upon six to eight world-class footballers, all in their pomp at once before selling them all for over £300m. Lord knows what they'd have achieved if they'd have stayed another season, let alone two. 

8. Newcastle United, 2002/03

Alan Shearer was made for Champions League football. Clarence Acuna - a defender once pulled over by police while driving in fancy dress over the alcohol limit, because he was too embarrassed to walk home dressed as Captain Hook - was not.

Still, Newcastle United's Champions League journey in 2002/03 is iconic. They lost all three of their opening matches before - to quote Jermaine Jenas - realising that Juventus were not that good and winning their next three. And this was a humdinger of a roster. Shay Given in goal, Speed, Dyer and Jenas in the middle, Laurent Robert and Nobby Solano providing spark, with Bernard and Woodgate in defence. Lomana LuaLua, Shola Ameobi and Craig Bellamy were all wildly different options to partner Wor Al; Sir Bobby Robson was in the technical area. 

Newcastle were inexperienced at that level - but they took to Europe with verve anyway and were fantastic to watch, whether they spectacularly won or lost.

7. Bayer Leverkusen, 2001/02

Bayer Leverkusen's triple throwaway of the league, cup and Champions League remains the greatest bottle-job in European footballing history. And it's such a shame when you remember how great that side was.

Chainsmoking madman Klaus Toppmoller had Michael Ballack, Ze Roberto and Lucio, all pre-Bayern, and all at their devastating best. Dimitar Berbatov was in the squad. Hans-Jorg Butt - the goalkeeper who scored three penalties against Juventus - was between the sticks, while Carsten Ramelow and Jens Nowotny added some steel. 

They were blistering all season. They tore Liverpool apart, broke Fergie's hopes of a Hampden send-off... and then they got Zidane'd. A fair few of them then got beaten weeks later in the World Cup final. Talk about not being able to catch a break. 

6. Borussia Dortmund, 2012/13

Robert Lewandowski's four-goal haul against Real Madrid remains one of the most incredible Champions League performances of all time. Jurgen Klopp grinning from ear to ear; Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil shellshocked. It made plenty fall in love with Dortmund.

BVB's brand of high-octane pressing was like something from another galaxy. Ilkay Gundogan was the engine, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus artists, with the likes of Jakub Błaszczykowski, Ivan Perisic and Kevin Grosskreutz ruthless and razor-sharp. 

Looking across that side, there were so few genuine examples of players faster, taller or stronger than the elite. They just out-ran, out-worked and out-thought everyone that season. The world fawned over Dortmund and they have done ever since - with practically everyone but Reus replaced over and over again. 

5. Ajax, 2018/19

If you're British, there's a strong chance that you had Tottenham's trip to Signal Iduna Park on TV the night that Ajax tore Real Madrid a new one in the Bernabeu. Apologies if you missed it.

The likes of Frenkie De Jong, Donny van de Beek, Dusan Tadic and Hakim Ziyech striding through a team who had won the last three Champions League titles was perhaps something we will never see in quite the same way again. This was a side with a confidence that you simply could not bottle, exemplified by the speed of David Neres and the brawn of Matthijs De Ligt. It was perhaps the most perfect team performance that the competition has ever seen.

That they went and knocked out Cristiano Ronaldo's Juventus in the next round was almost as impressive. In typical Dutch fashion, they didn't quite make it all the way - but the sumptuous football they played was glorious while it lasted.

4. AC Milan, 2004/05

There was a goal in the first half of AC Milan vs Liverpool in the Champions League final of 2005 that may well have gone as one of the greatest in the competition ever... had the comeback not happened. Kaka drops a shoulder, turns 180 degrees, slides a first-time pass through to Hernan Crespo, who scoops it first time over Jerzy Dudek. 

It summed up the grace and beauty of that team perfectly. Crespo, Shevchenko, Kaka, Pirlo, Seedorf, Nesta, Stam, Dida (with Rui Costa on the bench) - it's easily the best side to never win the Champions League, as well as being the side to throw away the Champions League in the most entertaining way. 

2003's Milan were gritty and cagey. 2005's edition knew how to turn on the style. 

3. Deportivo La Coruna, 2003/04

Deportivo are remembered for painting the town blue and white briefly, winning a title then slipping into the second and third tiers, like an Iberian Blackburn Rovers. But while Depor won the title as early as 2000 with Pauleta in tow, it wasn't until 2004 that they truly became a cult Champions League side. 

Roy Makaay had sadly left by then to go and bully other defenders but still Deportivo had Diego Tristan as trusty no.9 and Walter Pandiani staring down the opposition. Brief Tottenham obscurity Noureddine Naybet was there, too - his Wikipedia page has a USA '94 card as his profile photo, rather brilliantly - but that was it as far as, erm, stars went. 

The real stars were the performances they put in. An 8-3 defeat to Monaco in the groups was followed up by the most bonkers remontada seen up to that point: beating holders AC Milan 4-0 after losing to them 4-1 in the leg before. It couldn't last forever, simply because Jose Mourinho's Porto had no heart and whacked them in the semis. But whatever league they're in now, they're cordially invited to any all-time CL party that we host. 

2. Leeds United, 2000/01

For years, Leeds United's Champions League semi-final in 2001 was used as a stick to beat the excess and fall from grace that the club later suffered. Isolated, however, that team remains one of the most exciting English sides of the modern era.

There was genuine top quality in every position. Rio and Woodgate in central defence; nephew-uncle full-back pairing (yes, really) Ian Harte and Gary Kelly either side. Mark Viduka before Middlesbrough; Alan Smith before midfielding. Harry Kewell before Leeds fans hated him. Bowyer, Bakke and Batty. And Olivier Dacourt was excellent, too. 

Robbie Keane was on loan from Inter Milan, for goodness sake. This was a different era - and yes, Leeds' European giants may well have been unsustainable but wins against Lazio and Milan, plus a draw at home to Barca, sure were great while it lasted.

1. Monaco, 2003/04

They were coached by Didier Deschamps in a leather jacket. How could they not be our no.1? 

Jerome Rothen's wicked left foot, with a young Patrice Evra overlapping. Ludovic Giuly captaining the team, Dado Prso in the side, Emmanuel Adebayor getting his first minutes and Fernando Morientes scoring against parent club Real Madrid. This was a team of Championship Manager favourites living the virtual dream - and they were unbelievable.

Their group stage thrashing of Deportivo was legendary. Their win against Real Madrid iconic. Their destruction of Claudio Ranieri's Chelsea coldhearted. Monaco were simply Hollywood that season, putting viewers through every emotion possible. By the time they came up against Mourinho's Porto in the final, we were all routing for them. Of course, they let us down.

Deschamps went into international management curiously early, while the entire team got ripped apart. The Monagasques seemingly knew that a sequel could never be as good as the original. 

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