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May 04, 2022 8 min read

A departure for this week’s Charge Your Glasses piece as the focus is not on a club or a meeting between two old foes, but on a fixture in every football season: the UEFA Champions League semi-final.

Well, almost every season. In 1991/92, the European Cup changed from a knockout tournament to a mix of groups and knockout games. 32 teams started the competition and after two rounds the conquering eight sides were split into two groups of four, with the group winners advancing straight to the final. This meant the semi-final was, for two seasons only, not part of the tournament, so Barcelona in 1992 and Marseilles in 1993 are the only clubs never to have won a Champions League semi-final before winning the tournament.

This was corrected in 1994 when four teams contested the two semi-finals, which was a one-game shootout. Both Milan and Barcelona won 3-0, against Monaco and Porto respectively, and famously the Italians beat the Spaniards 4-0 in Athens in a one-sided final. Daniele Massaro scored the third against Monaco and the first and second against Barcelona, but any goodwill from Italians evaporated when he missed a penalty in the World Cup final against Brazil.

The 1994/95 tournament was the prototype of the modern form of the European Cup, where 16 teams from 16 nations played an initial group game. Manchester United were stymied by the ‘Three Foreigner Rule’ that was to be abolished with the Bosman Ruling the following year. They could not play Peter Schmeichel against Barcelona as well as their non-English talent (Irwin, Keane, Giggs, Hughes) and lost 4-0. The two sides finished level on points, so the head-to-head results knocked United out.

Champions League Regulars

The champions of Germany (Bayern Munich), the Netherlands (Ajax), France (Paris St-Germain) and Italy (AC Milan) advanced to the semi-finals. Though they were two-legged, they were one-sided: Ajax beat Bayern 5-2 in the second leg after a goalless first game, while Milan won both games against PSG to win 3-0 on aggregate. A Patrick Kluivert goal took the European Cup back to Amsterdam.

The 1995/96 semi-finals were genuinely exciting even though they led to another Ajax-Juventus final. A Panathinaikos side full of Greek internationals took a 1-0 lead into their second leg against Ajax, which they lost 3-0; a young Claude Makélélé was up againstDidier Deschamps and Antonio Conte as eventual winners Juventus held on against Nantes despite losing their second leg 3-2.

Juventus incredibly met Ajax once again in a convincing 6-2 aggregate win in 1996/97, while Borussia Dortmund defeated Manchester United in the other semi-final with 1-0 wins both at home and away. Fun fact: Alex Ferguson started to wear glasses after he didn’t spot a deflection in the first leg. This really was the era of Juventus, who reached yet another final in 1998 after holding on to their 4-1 first leg lead against Monaco. They lost 3-2 in the second leg to a side featuring Fabian Barthez, Leonardo and Thierry Henry, who chipped in their second goal, but an acrobatic scissor kick from Alessandro del Piero was the match highlight. It eventually meant nothing because Real Madrid beat them in the final.

It took a gutsy Manchester United performance in a famous semi-final against (yes, them again) Juventus in 1999 to reach their first European Cup final in 30 years. Roy Keane and Paul Scholes were both cautioned, so they would miss the final in Barcelona against Bayern Munich, who crept over the line with a 1-0 win after a 3-3 draw against a Dynamo Kyiv team which included Andriy Shevchenko. United went 2-0 down after 11 minutes, but the combination of Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole helped United achieve ‘the ‘minor miracle’ commentator Clive Tyldesley noted they needed. Miracles? We hadn’t seen anything yet…

In 2000, where teams had to negotiate two group stages, three Spanish teams competed in the semi-finals, with Valencia beating Barcelona and Real Madrid squeezing through against Bayern Munich. 2001 saw Leeds United go into the second leg of their tie 0-0 against Valencia, whose experience showed as the Yorkshire side were beaten 3-0. Leeds fan can toast that team of 2001 with a drink of gin or vodka courtesy of Bohemian Brands: it was a last hurrah for a team including Rio Ferdinand, David Batty, Harry Kewell and Alan Smith. You can celebrate them with a club-branded drink which you can choose here.

Another all-Spanish semi-final in 2002 saw Real Madrid overcome Barcelona in ties which included Luis Figo, Raul, Roberto Carlos, Xavi, Carles Puyol, Frank de Boer and Zinedine Zidane, whose blockbuster strike won Real the final against Bayer Leverkusen. The Germans, with Michael Ballack in the midfield and Oli Neuville upfront, won the other semi-final on away goals against Manchester United having scored two at Old Trafford.

In 2003 it was Italy’s turn to dominate the tournament as the Milan clubs contested a close pair of games at the San Siro with Shevchenko’s ‘away goal’ securing the win for AC Milan. He famously scored the winning penalty in the final against Juventus, who got past the Galacticos of Real Madrid in the semi-final, recovering from 2-1 down to win 4-3 on aggregate. The winner came from Pavel Nedved.

Champions League and English Sides

Fortunately for the players, the second group stage was mercifully brought to an end in 2003/04, the year Porto surprised everyone by winning the tournament. A 3-0 win against Monaco followed a 1-0 aggregate win against Deportivo La Coruña; Monaco had won 5-3 over two legs against a Chelsea side containing the aforementioned Claude Makélélé and Champions League winner Marcel Desailly.

Chelsea also made the 2005 semi-finals where a controversial goal by Luis Garcia, which today would have gone straight to VAR, propelled Liverpool into their first final in the Champions League era. They won it on penalties against a Milan side which needed a last-minute away goal at PSV Eindhoven to get to the final. Shevchenko was deputed to take the fifth penalty for Milan but he missed it.

In 2006 both semi-finals were decided by a single goal. Give yourself a point if you remember that goals from Kolo Touré of Arsenal and Ludovic Giuly of Barcelona helped to set up a final which included two assists from Barça’s Henrik Larsson. Arsenal were missing from the three English teams who reached the semi-finals in 2007: Liverpool needed penalties to overcome Chelsea once again, while Kaká masterminded AC Milan’s 3-0 second leg victory over Manchester United to propel them to another final. Two Pippo Inzaghi goals exorcised the ghosts of 2005.

Were it not for a slip by John Terry and a slap by Didier Drogba, which meant he couldn’t take a penalty, Chelsea might well have won a Champions League four years earlier than they did. Once again, three English sides made the semi-finals, with Manchester United overcoming Barcelona thanks to a Paul Scholes goal. A Drogba goal after extra time at Stamford Bridge was eventually the difference between Chelsea and Liverpool. The teams would share an incredible 4-4 draw the next season in the quarter-finals which set Chelsea up with a tie against eventual winners Barcelona, who beat a Manchester United side which themselves had dispatched Arsenal in their semi-final thanks to two Cristiano Ronaldo goals in the second leg.

Jose Mourinho did his bus-parking manoeuvre in a 2010 semi-final second leg where Inter Milan closed out the tie with a famous defensive performance against Barcelona, who only managed one of the two goals they needed. In 2011, it was Barcelona and Manchester United who advanced after the second legs of their semi-finals: Barcelona overcame their old foe Real Madrid while United had an easier time of it, winning 4-1 against Schalke in a game where Anderson scored twice. It was Anderson who aged 20 had scored the winning penalty in 2008.

Chelsea finally won the tournament in 2012 after outclassing Barcelona in the second leg of the semi-final, with Fernando Torres scoring a famous goal in injury time to win the tie at the Nou Camp (Chelsea would have gone through on away goals anyhow). Bayern Munich needed penalties to beat Real Madrid, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaká and Sergio Ramos all missing in the shoot-out. Bayern needed no such luck in 2013 as they cruised to a 7-0 semi-final aggregate win against a post-Guardiola Barcelona, while Borussia Dortmund brought back the spirit of 1997 by beating Real Madrid thanks to the astute coaching of Jürgen Klopp and a team containing Munich-bound Mario Götze and Robert Lewandowski, who scored all four in the first leg.

Cardiff saw the all-Madrid final in 2014 after Real took exacted their revenge and demolished Bayern 5-0 on aggregate, with two from Ronaldo and two from Ramos in the second leg. Chelsea came unstuck at home to Atlético Madrid and were so impressed by Diego Costa that they bought him for £32m. To underscore the dominance of four big clubs in the Champions League era, they all met in the last four of the 2015 tournament: Barcelona beat Bayern Munich 5-3 on aggregate, then went on to beat Juventus 3-1 in the final after Juve had held their nerve against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.

Champions League Dynasties

That year, no English team advanced to the quarter-finals, let alone the semi-finals, so it was good to see a new name, Manchester City, reach the final four and lose to Real Madrid 1-0 on aggregate. In another all-Madrid final, a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty in the shoot-out gave the glory to Madrid and CR7. It was Leicester City who progressed to the quarter-finals in 2017 in another bad year for English clubs; the semi-finals paired the two Madrid clubs (Real won 4-2 on aggregate) and, in a throwback to the 1998 semi-finals, Monaco and Juventus. Gianluigi Buffon made his 150th European appearance for Juve, who won thanks to the attacking prowess of Mario Mandžukić; Kylian Mbappé scored a consolation goal for Monaco.

Former Roma striker Mo Salah embarrassed his future team-mate Alisson in 2018 as Liverpool took a 5-2 lead into the second leg of their semi-final. They lost it 4-2 but still went through to play Real Madrid, who kept up their great record against Bayern Munich. The final was remembered for a Loris Karius lapse of judgement, a pair of Gareth Bale netbusters and a foul by Sergio Ramos which forced Salah out of the game.

Liverpool’s remontadaagainst Barcelona will forever be spoken about at Anfield as the Reds, managed by Klopp, overturned a 3-0 first leg defeat to win 4-0 and meet Tottenham Hotspur. They reached their first European Cup final with their own comeback against Ajax, inspired by Lucas Moura. Spurs fans can toast that side, managed by Mauricio Pochettino, with a branded drink courtesy of Bohemian Brands.

After the pandemic-disrupted 2020 tournament, where a French club (PSG) and a German club (Bayern Munich) knocked out a German club (RB Leipzig) and a French club (Lyon), last year’s tournament ended in a victory for Chelsea thanks to a goal by German striker Kai Havertz. Chelsea had beaten Real Madrid at Stamford Bridge while three Riyad Mahrez goals across the two legs against PSG brought a first European Cup final for Manchester City, who this week went into the second leg of their semi-final only a goal to the good having beaten Real Madrid 4-3 at home. Liverpool had a two-goal cushion against Villarreal, with the second leg played in Spain last night.

Ladies and gentlemen, please charge your glasses to the semi-final stage of the UEFA Champions League, which has entertained global audiences for three decades so far.