I just want to make it clear quickly, that I’m not being petty here; I’ve got over Chelsea winning the Champions League and this article is not intended to have a dig (I’ve done that more than enough already), merely to have a look at something, admittedly kind of pointless, that interests me.
It occurred to me last night that I really could not recall a team winning the Champions League while finishing as low as Chelsea did in their domestic league this season. The closest I could think of was Liverpool in 2005, who finished 5th. At the time this caused a big stir, as it was unclear if the European champions would be allowed to defend their crown the next season. Incredibly, there wasn’t a system in place to take into account that a team could finish outside the top four (or whatever the qualifying positions in their country) and still be good enough to go all the way and win the thing in the same season. This was not the case this season, as Spurs fans watched knowing their own Champions League future was in jeopardy.
But the Liverpool situation surprised me, and it therefore occurred to me that perhaps it has, indeed, been extremely rare for a team to become champions of Europe whilst being fairly average in their own league. I had a lot of time on my hands, so I thought I’d have a scan through the proverbial history books (Wikipedia) and find out how Chelsea ranked as one of the ‘worst’ winners of the competition.
After going through the last twenty-one seasons, it started to get a bit tiring writing it all down, so I stopped at the final between Barcelona and Sampdoria in 1992, the last season it was called the European Cup. That year, Barcelona, who finished 1st in La Liga, beat Sampdoria, who finished 6th in Serie A. As well as Chelsea, they were the only team as well as Chelsea to finish as low as 6th domestically and make an appearance in the final. In the ‘Champions League era’ Chelsea are the lowest-placed finalists and winners.
As the pie chart shows, 1st in the league was overwhelmingly the most common position of teams making an appearance in the final. After that it’s pretty close. With winners of the competition, it’s basically the same…
So, perhaps unsurprisingly, teams doing well domestically tend to take their form into Europe. However, it’s less common that the final will feature two domestic champions contesting the title…
Most finals feature a 1st placed team against another lower-placed side. The least common final features two teams who have failed to top their domestic leagues that season.
This season, 6th placed Chelsea beat 2nd placed Bayern Munich, continuing the trend in the Champions League era, of the lower-placed team beating the higher-placed one. Of 15 finals featuring sides in different positions in their league, nine of them have been won by the lower-placed side.
So, while some people downplay the relevance of this competition as showing who is the best team in Europe, in recent history the teams making the final do tend to be up there with the best. Before this season, the last three finals were 1st vs 1st affairs, featuring Barcelona against Man Utd twice and Inter vs Bayern. In the only all-English final of 2008, it was 1st vs 2nd in the country battling it out to conquer the continent. In that sense, Chelsea’s win this season will probably go down as a relative one-off.
However, (without noting it all down) I was too tempted to go through every European Cup final to see any notable winners or finalists. It took me a while, as throughout history it seems the finals have involved mainly 1st and 2nd placed sides, but I found some big exceptions.
Forgive me if you know this, but I’m young and was not alive when this happened, but Aston Villa won the European Cup in 1982 whilst finishing an incredible 11th in the league! They overcame a 3rd placed Bayern Munich that year, while Bayern themselves won it in 1975 whilst finishing 10th in the Bundesliga; this being the lowest combined final, as they beat Leeds United, who finished 9th in England.
Those were the only two teams to finish lower than Chelsea and win it. There have been a few low runners-up, but surprisingly few – Sampdoria, as I already mentioned; an 11th placed Partizan Belgrade in 1966, a 9th placed AC Milan in 1958 and a 10th placed Stade de Reims in the first European Cup final in 1956, all three losing to Real Madrid, who finished 2nd, 1st and 1st, respectively.
A couple of other interesting facts I found along the way were: Nottingham Forest are the only team to have won the European Cup more times (twice) than their domestic title (once). Bayer Leverkusen, beaten by Real Madrid in 2002, are the only team ever to have appeared in the final despite never having won their domestic league.
Yes, it’s a knock-out tournament and it occasionally throws up some – perhaps undeserved – surprises, but, by and large, I’m impressed by the quality of the teams to have contested the finals. The big clubs have dominated hugely, and have done so while managing to dominate domestically as well.