Football Features

The Champions League’s top 10 most iconic trios of the 21st century

By Ben Green

The Champions League's top 10 most iconic trios of the 21st century copy

Published: 13:25, 4 June 2023

Football has a fascination with trios, be it Manchester United’s ‘Holy Trinity’ (Georg Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton), Brazil’s three R’s (Ronaldinho, Rivaldo and Ronaldo) or Unai Emery’s three-peat Europa League masters, Sevilla. The rule of three dominates the sport.

The same is true of Europe’s flagship tournament, the Champions League. Individual stars have grabbed headlines (and Ballon d’Ors) in the competition, but as Louis van Gaal would probably tell you, soloists can’t win silverware by themselves. It takes a collective effort.

Johan Cruyff prized individuality, but only when it could flourish within the system. Where would he be without Rob Rensenbrink and Johnny Rep? That same school of thought still applies in the 21st century, where we often idolise individuals and forget the men who facilitated their greatness.

Here we recognise the achievements of this century’s best footballing trios in the Champions League, paying homage to group endeavour, team chemistry and a collective cohesion, rather than those greedy, stat-padding soloists…

Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar

There was something very FIFA Street-esque about Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez and Neymar in full motion. They were almost ethereal as they danced on the pitch, light-footed and silky. Together the three South Americans formed one of Europe’s most devastating attacking tridents, metaphorically snapping ankles and pirouetting their way to greatness. It’s just a shame their relationship proved relatively short-lived.

But, in their pomp they were a frightening prospect, playing as though fear were an alien concept. Between 2014 and 2017, Barcelona won back-to-back La Ligas, three successive Copa del Reys, and of course the 2015 Champions League, with that European win over Juventus confirming a treble for Luis Enrique’s men and consolidating their status as one of world football’s greatest ever trios.

Of course, Pep Guardiola’s treble-winning frontline of 2008/09 wasn’t too shabby either. Thierry Henry-Samuel Eto’o-Lionel Messi was as devastating as a proverbial bull in a china shop, but MSN were simply on another wavelength. It felt as though every attacking transition had Puskas Award potential. A pure joy for the neutral until Neymar left. Cheers for that, PSG.

Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi

Let’s stay in Catalonia. There is a very strong argument that the midfield triumvirate of Sergio Busquets, Andres Iniesta and Xavi is the greatest to have ever graced the Champions League. A bit like MSN, BIX (nah, it doesn’t have the same ring) played as though they shared one mind; there just seemed to be a prescient understanding between the trio as they epitomised Guardiola’s tiki-taka era and strung pretty passing patterns together in devastating fashion.

That marriage of aesthetics and effectiveness left terraces transfixed and opposition players befuddled. World Cups and European Championships were won while those three were on the field for Spain, and that form translated to Barcelona as well, as they hoarded Champions League trophies and famously took down Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United in 2011’s Wembley showpiece, with the Glaswegian immortal describing Guardiola’s men as “the best team I have ever faced”.

Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos

Let’s give another club some love. Real Madrid are the most successful side in European Cup history, so naturally one or two of their combinations will factor into this list. In Casemiro, Luka Modric and Toni Kroos, Los Blancos enjoyed a period of unprecedented, trophy-laden success, with that trio forming the backbone of the club’s three successive Champions League triumphs under Zinedine Zidane — and one last summer.

Incredibly, six years on from that first victory over Atletico Madrid in 2016, the trident was still going strong until Casemiro left for Man Utd after claiming his fifth European Cup for Real last season. In truth, it was almost the perfect combination of players, merging the refined physicality and anchoring of Casemiro, with the laser-guided passing range of Kroos and then the elegant playmaking and lung-busting runs of Modric.

Mohamed Salah, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane

When football historians look back and reflect on one of the most illustrious epochs at Anfield, there’s only one place they’re turning to first: that frontline. Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson have redefined the role of modern full-backs, while Virgil van Dijk and Alisson have revolutionised the backline from a defensive perspective. But Mohamed Salah, Sadio Mane and Roberto Firmino will forever be synonymous with ‘Klopp’s Liverpool’.

Trying to keep a lid on those three was a fruitless task, like trying to convince Zlatan Ibrahimovic not to express an opinion, they simply had no filter. Together they reached three Champions League finals (lifting ‘Big Ears’ in 2019), claimed a first-ever Premier League title for Liverpool, and secured a couple of domestic cup medals. A magnet for success, Salah-Firmino-Mane will go down in the history books as one of the greatest combinations known.

Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez

Having brought up that 2011 UCL defeat and now Liverpool, we should probably give Manchester United some attention. Before the memes, egos and discord pre-Ten Hag, the Red Devils were English football’s ‘best side’ under Ferguson, a team that gravitated towards success no matter who was on the pitch, or who they were facing.

But there can be no question that their frontline from 2007/08 was one of the greatest in the club’s storied history. A Premier League and Champions League double transpired that season, with Wayne Rooney, Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez linking up in an attack that toyed with defenders and caused mayhem.

Together they scored just shy of 80 goals that season — a whopping 73% of the club’s total goals tally and exactly 80% of their Champions League strikes, with Gerard Pique, bizarrely, the only other player to net more than one European goal that campaign. They were so influential to Ferguson.

Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini

Right, enough of this frontline malarkey. Juventus have had some of the game’s finest forwards to bless Turin, but they’ve also been fortunate to boast one of the Champions League’s best defensive trios. Before the back-three became hugely en vogue and you had even relegation-threatened Premier League clubs experimenting with the system, Juventus were going about their business keeping some of the continent’s best attacks under lock and key.

In a footballing culture where a clean tackle is met with just as much reverence as a goal, Andrea Barzagli, Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini would revel in their status as defensive grandmasters, forming a near-impervious bulwark that kept clean sheets aplenty and reached two Champions League finals. In that 2015 final defeat to Barca, Chiellini played 90 minutes in every single Champions League game that season, except the final, where a calf injury kept him out. What could have been.

Then they took to the turf together in 2017, but Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas in Cardiff.

Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo

Juve’s BBC from that day was no match for Real’s own: Bale, Benzema and Cristiano. Just as El Clasico rivals Barca had their own era-defining front three, Real had something similar with Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema and Ronaldo, a trio that would often burst through defences like a freight train through a garden fence.

Together they famously sealed Real’s fabled 10th Champions League trophy (La Decima), and then went on to win it another three times, securing La Undecima, La Duodecima, and La Decimotercera. It really was a glittering era that defied logic and often gravity (with Bale and CR7 bicycle-kicking their way to silverware).

Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf

There was something just so graceful about Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan. They oozed class. The Italian’s famous ‘Christmas Tree’ formation at the San Siro would scientifically and systematically cut open their opponents, with Gennaro Gattuso, Andrea Pirlo and Clarence Seedorf forming the bedrock of the system.

Gattuso, ever the hatchet man, would be on hand to break up play and procure the ball, Pirlo would contrive to set tempo at any given opportunity, and Seedorf would provide the energy of a man desperately trying to fight off a hornet attack with flailing arms. It’s a trident immortalised in Rossoneri folklore.

Together, they would reach three Champions League finals, winning the competition outright in 2003 and 2007, while their midfield efforts also birthed one of the game’s greatest ever attacking midfielders as Kaka set to work winning Ballon d’Ors and setting records — able to wreak havoc as those behind him provided and protected.

Arjen Robben, Franck Ribery and Thomas Muller

‘Robbery’ often springs to mind when we think of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery, but that only adds to the wonder of Thomas Muller, a man who has built a career on being the third wheel. The self-proclaimed Raumdeuter, or ‘space interpreter’, has fashioned a reputation for his ability to locate dangerous areas of the pitch otherwise unseen by us mere mortals. His selfless movement and unparalleled positional awareness isn’t one that generally garners a lot of attention, but it’s devastatingly effective.

And that may go a long way to explaining the successes of Robben and Ribery. Some may argue that they were destined for greatness regardless, but Muller certainly played a huge role in facilitating that greatness. Of course, it culminated in that historic treble, in which Jupp Heynckes’s Bavarians beat their Der Klassiker rivals Borussia Dortmund in the 2013 Champions League final at Wembley, with Robben scoring a last-gasp winner to sink Klopp’s men.

Messi, Samuel Eto’o and Ronaldinho

One final mention for Barcelona. Sixteen years ago a wise bet would have been to ask Frank Rijkaard for the lottery numbers, as he was arguably the luckiest manager in the world during the mid-noughties. To have both Messi and Ronaldinho in one team is the stuff of fantasy, bordering on outright insanity. Throw a sharp-shooter as clinical and prolific as Eto’o into the mix and you have a front three that simply cannot be improved upon. Together those three historically beat Arsenal in the 2006 final, with Messi crucial in their run to Paris but unable to play in the final due to injury. Still, they got the job done and will be forever etched in glory.