The top 10 managers in Champions League history
When you hear that music, you know something wild is about to happen. When they rebranded the European Cup as the Champions League in 1992, they created a sporting competition that was as much hype as it was excellent football. The chance and chaos of a cup competition self-styled as the biggest and best club competition around.
The Champions League has delivered on memorable moments over the years. Incredible scenes of drama and tragedy, and central to all this has been the managers. The players get all the glory on the pitch, but managers are just as important (sometimes even moreso) than they are. So we’ve had a look at all the managers since the Champions League’s rebranding and come up with the top 10.
Who falls where? Read on and find out!
10. Rafa Benitez
Clubs: Liverpool, Inter, Chelsea, Napoli, Real Madrid
Win Percentage: 57%
Trophies Won: 2005 (Liverpool)
Rafa Benitez was a UEFA Cup winner with Valencia when he joined Liverpool in the summer of 2004. There was much work to be done in a shoddy Liverpool side but thanks to Benitez’s organisational genius and some hefty slices of luck, the Reds won the Champions League in his first season in charge with that historic comeback over Milan.
Benitez could have made like Jupp Heynckes and vanished after this, but he stuck around and somehow managed to make Liverpool into a genuine Champions League powerhouse that would make another final in 2007. After Anfield, he was perhaps less successful, but his time on Merseyside and the sheer impossibility of 2005 puts him high on this list.
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9. Ottmar Hitzfeld
Clubs: Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich
Win Percentage: 51%
Trophies Won: 1997 (Dortmund), 2001 (Bayern)
Ottmar Hitzfeld became Dortmund coach in 1991 and within a couple of years made them a UEFA Cup mainstay, he then graduated to the Champions League where he guided a young Dortmund side to victory in just his second-ever season. Bayern poached him (as they are wont to do) and after suffering heartbreaking defeat in the 1999 final and 2000 semi-final, he and his Bayern side resolved to gain vengeance against Manchester United and Real Madrid.
They won the Champions League in 2001, beating both sides along the way. The victory made Hitzfeld the first manager to win the competition with two separate clubs. Vengeance complete, he and his side faded away quietly after that but for a five-year stretch, Hitzfeld’s teams were as mean as you were likely to find in the competition.
8. Vicente del Bosque
Clubs: Real Madrid
Win Percentage: 57%
Trophies Won: 2000, 2002
The man who has become most closely identified with Spain’s golden era actually did some of his best work almost a decade prior with Real Madrid. Vicente del Bosque was just a caretaker appointment but he proved so popular and effective at controlling the rampant egos that he got the job full-time.
His Madrid side were unable to juggle competitions, but it’s remarkable that in his four-year stint they either won La Liga or the Champions League (and when they won La Liga they at least made the semis in Europe). Their win in 2002, the peak of the Galacticos era, was notable. But the way his Madrid dismantled European Champions Manchester United in 2000 was downright miraculous.
7. Jupp Heynckes
Clubs: Real Madrid and Bayern Munich
Win Percentage: 70%
Trophies Won: 1998 (Madrid), 2013 (Bayern)
Heynckes was a journeyman coach with a fairly impressive UEFA Cup record when Real Madrid took a shot on him in 1997. A year later and he helped them capture their first Champions League for 32 years, reigniting Los Blancos’ love affair with the European Cup. He was still sacked, though, for finishing fourth in La Liga.
So he went travelling again, and after a few more pit-stops he ended up at Bayern Munich where he made consecutive Champions League finals, winning one of them to secure Bayern’s first-ever Treble. He then left but came back years later as an emergency coach and again guided Bayern to the semi-finals. Heynckes has taken charge of four seasons in the Champions League spanning 20 years, winning it twice and never failing to at least make the semis.
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6. Sir Alex Ferguson
Clubs: Manchester United
Win Percentage: 54%
Trophies Won: 1999, 2008
Sir Alex Ferguson loses the head-to-head with Del Bosque but ranks above him through the fact that he battered just about everyone else at least once during his phenomenally long run in the Champions League (no one can match the 194 matches he’s taken charge of). Sir Alex was, of course, the man behind the miracle minute in 1999, and he was also at the helm for the radically different 2008 juggernaut of a side.
He probably would have more Champions League wins than any other manager but he had the misfortune of running head-first into the greatest team of all-time in 2009 and 2011. And although his Champions League story ended in frustration at his inability to capture that third crown, he will always be remembered as one of the greats.
5. Louis van Gaal
Clubs: Ajax, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester United
Win Percentage: 60%
Trophies Won: 1995 (Ajax)
Sometimes it’s not just how many you win but how you win them. Louis van Gaal’s Champions League career spanned 10 seasons but he was never more brilliant than in his first three with Ajax. Specifically his first two, where he made the final both times, winning it once and only being denied by a doped-up Juventus the year after.
Ajax were a joy to watch, playing magnificent football with so many young, homegrown players. The core of that side got ripped apart and went on to dominate the competition for years to come for other sides, and the coaching philosophy that Van Gaal took with him to Barcelona and then Bayern Munich helped shape how those clubs built their dynasties in his wake. A legend.
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4. José Mourinho
Clubs: Porto, Chelsea, Inter, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Totteham Hotspur
Win Percentage: 56.74%
Trophies Won: 2004 (Porto), 2010 (Inter)
José Mourinho is a bit like Game of Thrones in that when he first showed up he was brutal, charming and instantly hypnotic but by the end, he was incoherent, contradictory and just plain annoying. The Portuguese shook up the world by winning the Champions League with Porto before moving to Chelsea and turning them into one of the best teams in Europe almost overnight.
He failed to capture Euro glory there but at Inter he pulled off perhaps the greatest upset to narrative in history as his brutishly organised Inter punctuated Pep Guardiola’s glorious Barcelona side, preventing them from ‘threepeating’ with a monstrously powerful defensive display in 2010. It’s been all downhill since then really, even if he did manage to restore Real Madrid’s sense of honour by helping end their round-of-16 jinx, paving the way for all their Champions League success.
But even though the ending was weak, the beginning was amazing, just like Game of Thrones.
3. Pep Guardiola
Clubs: Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Manchester City
Win Percentage: 62.58%
Trophies Won: 2009, 2011 (Barcelona)
As with Van Gaal, sometimes it’s not about how many you win but how you win them. And nobody on planet earth has ever won the Champions League as brilliantly as Guardiola has. The Catalan coach scorched the earth in 2009, his first season in senior management, with a Treble win that was born from a style of play that was like nothing the world had seen. It was a quantum leap in the game, and the entirety of modern football has been shaped by both that, and the 2011 sequel that was perhaps even better.
Only a literal act of God (look up Eyjafjallajokull) in 2010 and their own historic profligacy in 2012 prevented them from winning four in a row. They were a spectacular side the likes of which we may never see again.
So even though Guardiola has made just one final since that 2011 victory, losing to a beatable domestic rival. And even though he has struggled to translate his magnificent domestic dominance (with both Bayern Munich and Manchester City) into European glory, he places second on the list. Whatever you want to say about him (and his weirdly poor record in away knock-out games) there is no doubt that Pep Guardiola profoundly changed the Champions League for the better.
2. Zinedine Zidane
Clubs: Real Madrid
Win Percentage: 60.37%
Trophies Won: 2016, 2017, 2018
Sometimes it’s not about how many you win but how you win them, sure. But most of the time it’s about how many you win. It took Ancelotti 11 seasons to win three Champions League titles. It took Zinedine Zidane three. In fact, not even three, as he took over halfway through his first season in 2015/16. So two-and-a-half seasons. To win three Champions Leagues.
He won’t be winning any style points or setting any tactical trends like some other managers have managed to do, and he sadly sullied his perfect record with his less successful second spell as Madrid manager, but when you win the Champions League three times in a row in your first two-and-a-half seasons as a manager, how can you be anything but near the top of this list? Zinedine Zidane: Natural Born Winner.
1. Carlo Ancelotti
Clubs: Parma, Juventus, Milan, Chelsea, PSG, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Napoli, Real Madrid (again!)
Win Percentage: 56.45%
Trophies Won: 2003, 2007 (Milan), 2014, 2022 (Real Madrid)
The man to take advantage of Mourinho’s unintentional planning at the Santiago Bernabeu was Uncle Carlo. The lovely Italian coach helped Real Madrid get over the hump and win “La Decima” in 2014, allowing him to equal Bob Paisley with three European Cup/Champions League triumphs. He then went one better last season to become the first ever manager to lift the coveted silverware FOUR times. Ancelotti is the Champions League.
Of course, he arrived in Madrid (the first time) as an absolute legend, having guided Milan to two Champions League wins that really ought to have been four in five years but for two astonishing bottle jobs in the 2004 quarter-final against Deportivo and the 2005 final against Liverpool. Since then, though, he has gone on to lift the gong twice more, subsequently consolidating his status as the competition’s best ever manager.
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