The World Cup final aside, there is no fixture remotely comparable, and no club trophy with the same global status and capacity to shape legends. Wherever I travel in the world, supporters, fellow professionals and journalists want to discuss one game; the 2005 Champions League final.
I played 737 times for Liverpool. Everything before and since is defined by 120 minutes and nine penalty kicks beamed from Turkey to every continent. At the end of my playing career, there was an understandable focus on the one trophy myself and Steven Gerrard did not win – the Premier League.
In the years since, that pain has receded because of the realisation you could offer me three English title wins in exchange for my one Champions League winners’ medal, and the answer would be no. Winning the Premier League means everything in Liverpool and England. Lifting the European Cup is something else entirely, bringing worldwide clout and recognition from every football fan.
Speak to overseas players and they acknowledge Gerrard as the best English player of his generation because of what he did in Istanbul. Draw up a list of the greatest players of all time and they have either won the World Cup or European Cup. It is those with a Premier League winners’ medal who never won the Champions League who feel there is more of a void in their careers than those of us who did it the other way around.
My post-football career would not be what it is but for that night in the Ataturk Stadium 16 years ago. This weekend I will be working as a pundit on America’s CBS television for the final between Manchester City and Chelsea. Like my work for Sky Sports and role as a columnist, this has been made possible because of winning the Champions League.
Those of us in possession of a European Cup winners’ medal feel like members of an elite club, carrying an extra layer of credibility and understanding of what it takes to win the greatest prize. The sense of pride in the accomplishment grows the more great teams and players follow onto that podium.
The Manchester City and Chelsea players lining up in Porto tonight will appreciate and understand that, desperate to take their place in the tournament’s history.
City have dominated domestically, their world-class players now multiple Premier League title winners. But ask Kevin De Bruyne or Sergio Aguero what club trophy they have most dreamt of winning and it will be the one they are yet to get their hands on.
De Bruyne is the perfect example of a player whose profile will be elevated to another level if City win. He is the best midfielder in the world. Winning the European Cup will not make that any more true than it is prior to kick-off, nor will it alter how he is regarded over the next four or five years during which he is competing at the highest level. Where it does make a difference is how De Bruyne is remembered in 10, 20 and 30 years’ time.
De Bruyne will always be celebrated as a Manchester City and Belgian legend. To be one of the greatest of all time he must win the biggest club prize. For the best ever – whether it is Ferenc Puskas, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Kenny Dalglish, Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi – being pictured with a European Cup encapsulates a gloriously complete career.
Those are the moments those who had the pleasure of experiencing victory constantly replay in our heads – the photographs which take pride of place in our memorabilia.
The same is true of coaches. Alex Ferguson knew he could only be placed on the same pedestal as mentors Jock Stein and Matt Busby when he won the European Cup. “It took the monkey off my back,” he admitted after it had eluded him for so long.
For all the brilliant teams he created and countless domestic trophies, Ferguson was able to win the Champions League twice, in 1999 and 2008. That is what makes it so special. Even those managers and coaches regarded among the greatest will say it is the most difficult trophy to win.
When you get to the final, you want to absorb every second because you know the odds are it will never happen again. I was more nervous before my second final in 2007, which we lost, than in 2005 because the prospect of winning it twice was overwhelming.
The weight of history is impossible to shake off in the build-up. Real Madrid, the most dominant club in the competition, suffered a 32-year wait between 1966 and 1998. Bayern Munich went 25 years between 1976 and 2001, and Inter Milan ended 45 years of frustration before their third European Cup in 2010.
Even Barcelona with Messi at his peak have not reached the final since 2015. Harsh though the judgment is, Pep Guardiola knows that for all his success at Manchester City, his reign will be defined by whether he takes the trophy to the Etihad for the first time.
He won it twice with Barcelona, but the finals of 2009 and 2011 are remembered for Messi as much as Guardiola’s perfectly designed team. Ten years on from that last success, and no matter how much he plays it down, Guardiola knows how much he needs this.
All the pressure is on him and his team. Whatever the outcome, City will be the story – either completing the mission the owners set for Guardiola when he took over, or prolonging his recent European agony. Chelsea can see this as a “free hit”. They would not have expected to get this far when Thomas Tuchel took over from Frank Lampard in January.
Having beaten City twice since then, they are the most dangerous opponents Guardiola could have faced in the final.
Tactically, there are some echoes of the Europa League final, where Villarreal were comfortable with their underdog status and willing to soak up pressure against Manchester United. After four years in charge, it feels like this will be City’s time.
Everything the club and Guardiola have done since 2017 has been gearing up for it. The manager knows how to prepare his team for a Champions League final – the last one he coached produced the most complete performance by any club team in a game of this stature – and those City players must believe nothing will stop them.
© Telegraph Media Group Ltd 2021