Football Features

Combined XI: The greatest players in each position to never win a Champions League title

By Ben Green

Published: 18:50, 5 February 2022

For footballers playing in Europe, winning the Champions League is seen as the pinnacle of any career.

The two greatest players of recent times, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, have won the Champions League four and five times respectively, which goes to show how quality often coincides with success in the competition.

That said, the famous trophy has somehow eluded a number of immensely talented stars over the years. Those players have fallen short for several reasons, some more dramatic than others.

With that in mind, we’ve had a look at the best players to never win the Champions League and made a combined XI.

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Goalkeeper: Gianluigi Buffon

Buffon reached the final with Juventus in 2015 and 2017 but the Italians lost to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively. He will have been hoping to get a refreshed chance of glory with Paris Saint-Germain in 2018 but the French side only made it to the last 16. His following two seasons after returning to Juventus brought more last 16 disappointment and he may have to regard the Champions League as the one that got away, now back at boyhood club Parma in Serie B.

Regardless of the aforementioned European disappointments, though, including a red card in the 2017/18 quarter-final defeat to Real Madrid, Buffon has won 11 domestic league titles not to mention the World Cup and will always be considered one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time.

Right-back: Lilian Thuram

Another Juventus player in our XI – this will become a running theme – is Lilian Thuram, who was part of the Old Lady team that lost in the final against AC Milan in 2003. Despite making 69 Champions League appearances, he never won the competition.

Some of Thuram’s achievements in Italy were revoked due to the match-fixing scandal in the mid-2000s, but he is still a club legend having won two Serie A titles legitimately. He also won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 with France, cementing his reputation as one of the world’s leading defenders.

Centre-back: Laurent Blanc

He played for a number of top clubs, including Inter Milan, Barcelona and Manchester United, but Laurent Blanc failed to get his hands on the Champions League trophy.

Like Thuram, that disappointment was offset by the experience of World Cup glory in 1998 and winning Euro 2000. Blanc would go on to manage France and PSG but went no further than the quarter-final stage in the Champions League as a coach.

Centre-back: Fabio Cannavaro

The defining image of Fabio Cannavaro is the Italian lifting the 2006 World Cup aloft. Like all of the players preceding him on this list, Cannavaro won the ultimate prize in international football but failed to win the Champions League.

That’s despite playing for Inter Milan, Juventus and Real Madrid, three European superpowers who just so happened to fall short while Cannavaro was at each club. He reached the Champions League semi-finals with Inter in 2002/03 but never got any further than that.

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Left-back: Gianluca Zambrotta

Zambrotta was at Barcelona during a relatively dry spell for the La Liga giants. Either side of his time in Spain, the full-back enjoyed successful stints with Juventus and Milan but missed out on Champions League glory like so many other great Italians.

That all of these players won the World Cup in 2006 makes the fact they didn’t quite make the grade in European club football all the more surprising, especially the incredibly strong defensive set-ups boasted by Juventus teams of late.

Central midfield: Michael Ballack

The 2001/02 season was both an immensely difficult year and the making of Michael Ballack. He helped Bayer Leverkusen finish runners-up in the Bundesliga, the DFB-Pokal, and the Champions League, as well as losing in the World Cup final with Germany against Brazil.

All of those near-successes must have been painful, but they earned Ballack a move to Bayern Munich. There, he won three league and cup doubles. Chelsea eventually came calling, and with the west London club he lost yet another Champions League final in 2007/08.

Central midfield: Lothar Matthaus

World Cup winner, German Footballer of Year, European Footballer of the Year, World Player of the Year, seven-time Bundesliga winner, Germany’s most-capped player of all time. Lothar Matthaus has just about done it all.

There is, however, one small gap on his CV. Matthaus never won the Champions League, but he came incredibly close in 1999.

Bayern Munich were within two minutes of lifting the trophy before Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer won it for Manchester United. The 60-year-old must still have nightmares about that fateful evening.

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Central midfield: Pavel Nedved

We haven’t mentioned a former Juventus player for a while, so here’s another.

Pavel Nedved, considered one of the greatest midfielders of the modern era, made 100 appearances in Europe during his time in Italy but never even played in the final.

Nedved would have featured in the 2003 final against Milan had he not picked up too many yellow cards, which saw him miss the big occasion through suspension. Had he played, this list might look very different.

Forward: Zlatan Ibrahimovic

Ibrahimovic played for seven different clubs in the Champions League before moving to MLS side LA Galaxy in 2018. The Swede reached the semi-finals with Barcelona but fell out with manager Pep Guardiola after they were eliminated by his former club Inter Milan.

He would then return to AC Milan, but more disappointment followed as the Italians were surprisingly knocked out in the round-of-16 by Tottenham. Ibrahimovic will probably be better remembered for his ability and personality rather than his tangible achievements (though he has hit over 500 goals in club football).

Forward: Gabriel Batistuta

Gabriel Batistuta was arguably the best striker on the planet in the late 1990s. He came third in the World Player of the Year rankings in 1999 following yet another huge goal return for Fiorentina.

The Argentinian impressed in the Champions League with goals against Arsenal and Manchester United but never got very far in the competition. He had to wait until 2000/01, after joining Roma, to win his first Serie A title. Indeed, his trophy return didn’t quite match up to his obvious quality.

Forward: Ronaldo

He may have been one of many great South American exports to grace European football, but in a way, there was nobody quite like Ronaldo. Even after serious knee problems threatened to curtail his career, the Brazilian scored a stunning hat-trick against Manchester United and received a standing ovation from sections of the Old Trafford crowd.

That was perhaps his best Champions League moment considering he didn’t win the competition. In fact, he never even reached the final. World Cup glory in 2002 was thankfully enough to confirm Ronaldo as one of the best ever.

Honourable mentions: Giorgio Chiellini, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Francesco Totti, Dennis Bergkamp, Phillip Cocu, George Weah, Patrick Vieira, Hernan Crespo, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Roberto Baggio.