Spanish clubs have dominated the Champions League in the last decade or so, and naturally that means they have ruffled a few feathers along the way.
Some of these rivalries have reached boiling point on multiple occasions. Here, expert fans from the La Liga Lowdown squad will give their perspective on how significant those rivalries are, and what they mean to supporters.
The 13-time European Cup winners have an illustrious record in this competition. For Los Blancos, their biggest adversaries have been giants Manchester United and Bayern Munich. Hasan Karim (@TheHasKarim) says: “both clubs are seen as the biggest in their respective leagues. It’s a case of European domination – who is the ultimate juggernaut?”
From semi-final clashes in the original European Cup era to more modern matches, United are the English club that Real Madrid have faced more than any other.
The Old Trafford crowd could do nothing but admire the performance of Ronaldo Nazário in 2003. The sensational hat-trick from O Fenômeno has gone down in the annals of history.
“Ronaldo danced around Old Trafford,” remembers Has. “He turned the Theatre of Dreams into his playground.” This came just three years after Fernando Redondo’s iconic backheel on the same pitch. Sir Alex Ferguson must have been sick of the sight of those flamboyant South Americans.
Ten years on, they met in the last-16 in what was to be Ferguson’s last European tie. Cristiano Ronaldo had made his world-record move from Old Trafford to the Santiago Bernabéu, and this was billed as “the Cristiano Derby,” says Has. A 1-1 draw in Madrid put the Red Devils in the box seat, but José Mourinho’s side won 2-1 with Ronaldo inevitably scoring the winner. Mourinho had defeated Fergie again.
Rivalry rating: 3/5
But Has admits that Madrid’s main European rivals have to be the Bavarians: “the battles were far more intense and hold far greater weight.” The eternal quest for La Décima was prolonged after a shootout defeat in 2011/12. “Real were so captivating that season, but were dumped out via a complete heartbreak,” laments Has.
Revenge was sweet in 2013/14, with a 4-0 thrashing in Munich on their way to the mystical 10th title. Madrid would knock Bayern out again in 2017 and 2018, with clashes increasingly chaotic, fractious and controversial. Just ask Arturo Vidal!
As a result, Has is always anxious: “when Real are drawn against Bayern, I know a serious battle is about to take place. The gloves are off and it’s a bare-knuckled slug-fest, two behemoths going at it.”
Rivalry rating: 4/5
Honourable mention: Juventus — the 2017 final, 2018 semi-final and Ronaldo’s power-shifting move in 2018.
Anders Frisk and Tom Henning Øvrebø. Two infamous names associated with clashes between Barça and Chelsea. Both were referees at the centre of controversial decisions which swung the ties.
In the case of the former, Mourinho was the pantomime-villain protagonist, accusing Frank Rijkaard of having a cosy chat at half-time with the official. Román De Arquer (@Aeroslavee) explains: “We all know how Mourinho liked to provoke his rivals off the pitch, and as a result the games were quite heated. I particularly remember an outrageous tackle from Asier del Horno on Leo Messi at Stamford Bridge in 2006, and how Mourinho insisted after the game that Messi had been exaggerating.”
There was also the iconic toe-poke goal from Ronaldinho and then the 93rd-minute Andrés Iniesta strike at the Bridge, after a volatile match when the hosts thought they deserved multiple penalties. That goal put the Catalans through to the 2009 final, and the rest is history.
In more recent years, there was the momentous Camp Nou match in 2012 when Fernando Torres ended Pep Guardiola’s chances of a third Champions League in four seasons. Gary Neville’s iconic commentary makes it all the more memorable.
Rivalry rating: 5/5
A highly topical rivalry is in evidence this season, in the form of French powerhouse Paris Saint-Germain. As Román recalls: “I’m not exactly sure how it all started. Possibly Barça’s failed attempt to sign Marco Verratti irritated both sides.”
Of course, the remontada in 2017 was a memorable match for all fans, not least for those in the stands at Camp Nou. That game confirmed many narratives around the two clubs, with PSG crumbling under pressure again and Barcelona overcoming adversity to win. Both narratives have been rewritten in the four years since, adding fuel to the fire.
The most acrimonious element has to be Neymar’s transfer. An earth-shattering, market-breaking transfer deal which still has fallout for both clubs. “That triggered everything,” says Román. “Regardless of how good the deal was, the rumours went on for too long and it was exhausting for culés. It felt like PSG were showing off by splashing their cash, and it didn’t bode well in Barcelona.”
Rivalry rating: 4/5
Honourable mention: Bayern Munich – Pep’s return, that 7-0 aggregate tie and the 8-2 drubbing in Lisbon.
The rivalry with Liverpool is one of “admiration which has begun to take a turn,” says Sam Leveridge (@samleveridge). The clubs enjoyed an amicable relationship, with Atlético Madrid fans’ idol, Fernando Torres, making a big move to Anfield in 2007. But that incredible tie in 2019/20 has changed the landscape. “Jürgen Klopp’s criticism of Atleti’s defensive style infuriated fans, who didn’t hold back in celebrating their win at Anfield wildly,” says Sam.
Liverpool also won the Champions League in Atleti’s backyard in 2019, which is bound to sting any fanbase.
Rivalry rating: 3/5
The rivalry to end all rivalries is ironically enough a domestic duel: Atleti and Real Madrid. Yes, El Derbi has been more fiery in continental clashes, as opposed to within Spain, where these two Madrid clubs have competed for the same titles.
“It’s in Europe where they’ve clashed time and time again in finals and the latter stages. In the golden era, only Real Madrid could knock Atleti out,” explains Sam. The two crescendos of this battle came in two all-Madrid finals: Lisbon in 2014 and Milan in 2016.
Atleti were minutes away from an unprecedented double in 2014, only for Sergio Ramos (why always him?) to pop up and break Atleti hearts. Los Blancos ripped them apart in extra time. The greatest night in their history became their biggest nightmare with one header. Carlo Ancelotti’s side won La Décima in the most dramatic fashion against their neighbours, leaving them gutted and desolate.
They would repeat the feat two years later on penalties. Probably the two cruellest ways to lose finals, and Atleti suffered them against their eternal rivals. It doesn’t get much worse than that.
Rivalry rating: 5/5
Bayern — 1974 final replay in which Bayern won 4-0 (the only European Cup/Champions League final to have been replayed).
Chelsea — 2014 semi-final, first winners at the Wanda Metropolitano, club-swapping conflicts.