As the sunset in Paris on a disconsolate Arsenal, licking their wounds from a Henrik Larsson inspired Barcelona comeback, a new dawn was on the horizon for English football on the European stage.
Arsenal’s run to the Champions League final that season was the stuff of legend. Despite barely scraping a fourth-placed finish in the Premier League, The Gunners managed to see off Italian champions Juventus and the galacticos of Real Madrid en route to the event’s showpiece in the French capital.
Jens Lehmann’s early dismissal in the final proved to be one obstacle they couldn’t overcome, as goals from Samuel Eto’o and the unlikely Juliano Belletti meant that the famous big-eared trophy would be heading to the Camp Nou.
English clubs had been doing surprisingly well in Europe’s premier competition. With Liverpool going all the way and winning it the year before, the Premier League’s elite could boast that they had produced two finalists in as many years. That hadn’t happened in over 20 years, since Liverpool reached back-to-back finals in ‘84 and ‘85.
But both the Merseysiders’ and the North Londoners’ runs to their respective finals were based on defensive stubbornness and individual brilliance. Liverpool relied on Rafa Benitez’s tactical nouse, Steven Gerrard’s determination, and the cauldron that is Anfield. Arsenal banked on a record-breaking defence – which kept ten clean sheets in a row, a tournament record – and the magic of Thierry Henry.
In the three seasons that followed that heartbreaking Parisian evening, however, English sides would no longer be defending for their lives. Quite the contrary. They would be imposing their will on the rest of Europe. Whether it was Liverpool’s 4-0 thumping of Real Madrid in 2009 or Manchester United’s 7-1 demolition of Roma in 2007, English clubs were at the top of the food chain and the European establishment knew it.
None of the said establishment wanted to be drawn against an English team in the competition, instead hoping that the Premier League’s finest would take each other out. The year after the Red Devils’ dismantling of Francesco Totti’s Romans, the pair were drawn together again, much to the dismay of the Italian giants.
This was best summarised by Roma midfielder Marco Cassetti. Speaking to the Daily Mail after the 07/08 Quarter Final draw, he said: “There were many bad words spoken in our dressing room as soon as the draw was made.
“We have to play them again and once again we have to play at home first and then go to Old Trafford.
“We all know what happened there last time.
“This is a disaster for us, a nightmare.
“For us, it is the same old story.”
In each of those three seasons, three of the four Champions League semi-finalists were English, a whopping 75%. Such a feat has never been replicated by any country. To put the achievement into context, there has not been a single country that has provided three semi-finalists in the 12 years since. In the modern era of UEFA’s top prize, there have only been two other occasions when one country provided three semi-finalists, Italy in 2002/03 and Spain in 1999/00.
The cherry on top of this era of dominance was, of course, the 2008 final in Moscow, which hosted the first-ever all-English final. On that rainy Russian evening, Manchester United met Chelsea in what promised to be an exciting affair between two star-studded sides. Goals from Cristiano Ronaldo – netting his 42nd goal of an incredible season – and Frank Lampard, meant the tense encounter finished 1-1.
Didier Drogba’s extra-time moment of madness – an off the ball slap on Nemanja Vidic – resulted in a red card and left the Blues a man down for the resulting shootout. The Londoners would rue his dismissal, as Edwin Van Der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s tame sudden death spot-kick, leaving the Premier League and now European Champions to celebrate long into the night.
Encounters between the English sides on the continental stage had rarely been seen in years gone by. Liverpool’s ghost-goal-inspired defeat of Chelsea in the semi-finals of 2004/05 was the first time we had truly experienced such an occasion, and the mouth-watering affair gave football fans a small glimpse of what was to come.
During the course of the three-year period the Premier League’s resident ‘Big Four,’ Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal played against each other on six separate occasions, serving up some classic ties in the process.
Liverpool once again saw off Chelsea, this time on penalties, in a 2006/07 semi-final at Anfield. The Blues would get their revenge a year later, with extra-time goals from Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard – 6 days after his mother’s death nonetheless – sealing a 4-3 aggregate victory.
In the round prior, Liverpool and Arsenal combined to provide another first-class piece of footballing theatre in front of the Kop, with late goals from Steven Gerrard and Ryan Babel clinching a 5-3 aggregate win for the Reds.
In 2008/09 Liverpool and Chelsea met once more, this time at the quarter-final stage. In the first leg at Anfield, the Reds led through Fernando Torres – Europe’s most feared striker at the time – however, the Blues hit back.
Goals from Drogba and a brace from Serbian defender Branislav Ivanovic completed a 3-1 victory, leaving Benitez’s side with a mountain to climb. In the reverse fixture at Stamford Bridge, Liverpool – without captain and talisman Gerrard, out with an injury – needed to score at least three goals if they were to have any hope of progressing.
After 28 minutes, they led 2-0 and the dream appeared to be on, however, Chelsea roared back with goals from Drogba, Alex, and Lampard giving them a 3-2 lead. More drama was to follow and the match would finish 4-4, with Lampard and co progressing 7-5 on aggregate, setting up a tantalising semi-final with Barcelona.
Manchester United and Arsenal also met at the semi-final stage that year, with United progressing 4-1 on aggregate, mainly thanks to more Cristiano Ronaldo brilliance.
There is a blemish on the record though and quite a big one at that. During these three wonderful seasons, English clubs only managed to convert their dominance into one Champions League trophy. The other two were squandered.
In 2006/07, a Kaka influenced AC Milan got their retribution for Istanbul two years prior. The Brazilian was instrumental in the 3-0 semi-final annihilation of Manchester United at the San Siro, before handing the reins over to veteran poacher Filippo Inzaghi, whose double sank Liverpool in Athens, handing the Rossoneri their seventh European Cup.
Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona rose to prominence in 2008/09, sweeping away all that came before them. Assisted by some more than dubious refereeing decisions, Andres Iniesta’s last-gasp thunderbolt completed an away goals victory over Chelsea in the semi-finals.
Then, despite being on the back-foot for long periods of the final, goals from Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi secured a 2-0 victory over Manchester United, handing them their third European title, and crowning a historic treble in the process.
In the years subsequent, the English stranglehold was loosened. Bayern Munich would rise to become a global superpower once again – reaching three of the next four finals, losing two of them.
Guardiola’s, and later Luis Enrique’s, Catalonian juggernaut would also continue to power on, adding to their 2008/09 success with further trophies in 2010/11 and 2014/15.
Real Madrid would go on to put the curse of ‘La Decima’ behind them, winning their first European crown in 12 years in 2013/14, beating city rivals Atletico 4-1 after extra time. Thrust forward by the superhuman goalscoring exploits of Cristiano Ronaldo, Los Blancos added four more titles in five years, winning three in succession between 2016 and 2018, becoming the first side in history to successfully retain the coveted prize in the process.
There has been some English success in the years that followed. Manchester United reached the 2011 final and Chelsea’s fairytale story of 2012 culminated with them beating Bayern in their own backyard to win their first-ever Champions League. More recently, Liverpool have returned to success, narrowly losing out to Real Madrid in 2018’s final, before beating Spurs the following year in the second-ever all English final.
It’s highly unlikely that we will ever see such an era of supremacy in the future. Three Champions League semi-finalists from the same country is practically unheard of. Should such greatness never be repeated, we can all sleep safely in the knowledge that we were able to witness history.