Zlatan, R9, Buffon among top 10 best players never to win Champions League

Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon never won the Champions League. Credit: Alamy
Gabriel Batistuta, Ronaldo and Gianluigi Buffon never won the Champions League. Credit: Alamy

Kevin De Bruyne hauled himself off this list on Saturday night, but not everybody gets to win the Champions League. Where Djimi Traore triumphed, these icons failed…


10) Ruud van Nistelrooy
There may be better players not on this list – and we did spend rather a long time debating some of the names at the bottom of this top ten – but only one player has scored more Champions League goals (56) than the Dutchman without ever winning the trophy. He never even made it to a final. The closest he came was in 2002, when Manchester United lost on away goals to Bayer Leverkusen in the semi-finals. Those who believe that Sir Alex Ferguson never erred on the side of conservatism should note that he was roundly criticised for playing Van Nistelrooy as a lone striker in Germany after a 2-2 home draw.

It must hurt a little that Real Madrid won the trophy while he was at Manchester United and then Manchester United won the trophy while he was at Real Madrid. Having scored twice for the latter against Bayern Munich in the last 16 in 2007, he could argue that he had at least fulfilled his side of the bargain.


9) Patrick Vieira
A wonderful player but, unlike the equally wonderful Thierry Henry, he did not leave Arsenal and claim a Champions League trophy elsewhere. Instead, he left Arsenal and played them in the quarter-finals of the Champions League while in Juventus colours. It did not go well. As Alan Smith wrote in the Telegraph:

‘This Champions League tussle had gone worse than Vieira could ever have anticipated. Humiliated by his old side, booed by his old fans, the Juventus player’s performance had gone some way to vindicating Arsene Wenger’s decision last summer to say a sad farewell.

‘You know you’ve been slow to react when Robert Pires, not exactly known for his tackling, pinches the ball from behind with a neat sliding challenge. That ignomy befell Vieira on the halfway line just before half-time and if that made him feel bad what happened next would only have made things much worse. The resulting move was both simple and devastating. Pires to Thierry Henry, Henry to Fabregas.’

To add insult to injury, he then picked up a booking that ruled him out of the second leg. And if you think that went badly, imagine leaving Inter Milan in January 2010 before they won the Champions League that May.


8) Michael Ballack
When 25-year-old Michael Ballack moved to Bayern Munich after the disappointment of losing with Leverkusen to Real Madrid in 2002, he must have thought he would get more chances to win the Champions League.

He would go on to win a further 13 major trophies for Bayern and Chelsea, but that Zinedine Zidane volley must haunt him to this day – he never got closer. He should have made it to at least one more final. But his memorable arm-waving, shouting remonstrations in the face of referee Tom Henning Ovrebo – who should have given about 65 penalties to Chelsea in their 2009 semi-final clash with Barcelona – fell on deaf ears.


7) Pavel Nedved
Agony and ecstasy. Hero to zero. No game of football captures those tired old cliches better than the Champions League semi-final clash between Real Madrid and Juventus when the brilliant Czech midfielder Pavel Nedved scored a glorious goal to help his team to the final and then needlessly hacked at the ankle of Steve McManaman to rule himself out of said final.

He did still win the Ballon d’Or that season but he remained devastated throughout his career, dedicating a whole chapter of his autobiography to the disappointment. He would go on to reach two more quarter-finals – losing to first Liverpool and then Arsenal in Juventus colours – but he twice missed out on the chance of redemption.


6) Fabio Cannavaro
The last player to win the Ballon d’Or without ever claiming the Champions League, the Italian is undoubtedly one of the finest defenders of the modern age. But where Djimi Traore has triumphed, Fabio Cannavaro has failed. He did reach one semi-final with Inter but painfully lost to AC Milan on away goals (even though both legs were played on the same ground) and would never again reach that stage with either Juventus or Real Madrid.

He played alongside Nedved in that Juventus side that lost successive quarter-finals to English opposition, and then was unlucky enough to play for Real Madrid in that cursed era when they could not make it past the last 16. He was 35 when he suffered the ignominy of losing 5-0 on aggregate to a Liverpool side featuring Andrea Dossena and Jay Spearing. “Giorgio Chiellini is my heir,” he said on retirement; it’s probably not a crown Chellini relishes when it comes to the Champions League.


5) Dennis Bergkamp
“It was somehow you’re building up and up and getting all the trophies and getting personal success and in the end you get to the Champions League final at last. Jeez! If only I’d been five years younger!” said the Dutch master when recalling the moment he finally reached a Champions League final with Arsenal at his eighth attempt. But then – with Arsene Wenger set on giving him a few minutes in what would have been his final appearance in an Arsenal shirt – Jens Lehmann was sent off and the Frenchman was limited in his tactical substitutions. It was not to be.

Bergkamp did retire with two UEFA Cups to his name (one with Ajax and one with Inter Milan) but he would never add the big one. Some might say that he should forfeit his place on this list because he refused to fly to so many European away games, but he remained a great player even when grounded. And he did make it to Paris on the Eurostar.


4) Gabriel Batistuta
What a player. What a legend. What a bloody icon. And yet he never even advanced into the knock-out stages of the Champions League. He did score some quite magnificent goals at English grounds, mind…

Those goals came in the season Batistuta had finished third in the FIFA World Player of the Year voting despite not actually winning anything of real note. Finishing third in Serie A with Fiorentina and still being voted third best player in the world; that was Batigol.


3) Zlatan Ibrahimovic
The scorer of 48 Champions League goals in 124 Champions League games across 16 Champions League seasons, Zlatan Ibrahimovic is the winner of precisely zero Champions League medals. He reached the quarter-finals with Ajax only to lose to Milan. He reached the quarter-finals with Juventus only to lose to Liverpool and Arsenal (along with Nedved and Cannavaro). He reached the semi-finals with Barcelona only to lose to the Inter Milan side he had left the previous summer. He reached the quarter-finals with AC Milan only to lose to Barcelona. He reached the quarter-finals with PSG only to lose to Barcelona again. And then Chelsea. And then Barcelona again. And then Manchester City. Milan reached the semis this season, but even if they had gone all the way, injury meant Zlatan wasn’t registered in the Rossoneri’s Champions League squad.

But for all those near-misses, Ibrahimovic has only scored ten goals in 40 Champions League knock-out ties, and three of those came in his final season at PSG against English opposition. He can only have himself to blame (and Guardiola for subbing him in that 2010 semi-final when he was chasing a goal) for his lack of big European medals.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks perplexed Credit: Alamy
Zlatan Ibrahimovic looks perplexed Credit: Alamy

2) Gianluigi Buffon
2003. 2015. 2017.

Three finals and three defeats for one of the world’s greatest goalkeepers.

“I want to end my career with a big victory. Twelve years ago, I won the World Cup, yet I’ve lost three Champions League finals,” said Buffon in October 2017 as he announced that he would retire at the end of that season unless he finally won the Champions League. He did not win the Champions League.

But he did not retire either, joining PSG for one season in pursuit of that elusive trophy. And then he made an almighty cock-up to spill Marcus Rashford’s shot and allow Romelu Lukaku to score in that bizarre game that earned Ole Gunnar Solskjaer the permanent Manchester United manager’s job. It was not to be.


1) Ronaldo
Simply one of the greatest footballers in history and yet he played in only 40 Champions League matches, limited by timing and then injury. He played for PSV and Barcelona in lesser European competitions and then his one campaign with Inter Milan ended against Manchester United with the two-time World Player of the Year missing the first leg and limping through an hour of the second leg.

Of course, 2003 – after a switch to Real Madrid – should have been his year, and many would have handed him a Champions League medal after his hat-trick against Manchester United at Old Trafford. They faced Juventus in the semi-finals and Ronaldo scored the opening goal of the tie in Madrid, but injury struck once again and he played only 38 minutes of the second leg. The following year they drew Monaco in the quarter-finals and this was to be Ronaldo and Real’s year; but they shockingly flopped thanks in part to his on-loan Real teammate Fernando Morientes. At 27, Ronaldo should have had other chances. But at 29, he played his final Champions League game. Fittingly, he scored twice.


Honourable mentions: Sergio Aguero, Roberto Baggio, Francesco Totti, Lilian Thuram, Lothar Matthaus, Andy Booth and Cesc Fabregas.

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