As the curtain falls on another UEFA Champions League season, UEFA.com looks back at ten of the year's biggest stories, from Gareth Bale's coming of age to Raúl González's renaissance.
With the last ball having been kicked in another memorable UEFA Champions League season, UEFA.com look back at ten of the biggest stories, from Gareth Bale's coming of age to Raúl González's renaissance with FC Schalke 04.
Bale puts Inter to the sword
FC Internazionale Milano fans probably knew little about Gareth Bale before this season's campaign began but they are unlikely to forget him now. The competition newcomer scored his first goal against FC Twente on Matchday 2 before truly announcing his arrival at Europe's top table on Italian soil. Tottenham Hotspur FC were four goals and a man down when the 21-year-old winger inspired the most improbable of fightbacks by scoring a sensational hat-trick. Although Spurs ultimately came up short, the Welsh international proved his display was no fluke by terrorising Inter and Maicon again in a 3-1 win at White Hart Lane.
Messi leaves Europe in his wake
Arsenal FC had been warned. Four Lionel Messi goals eliminated the Gunners from last season's competition so Arsène Wenger's team, 2-1 up at the halfway stage of their round of 16 tie, no doubt arrived at the Camp Nou with a plan to stifle the Argentine wizard. Those efforts proved in vain, however, as Messi added two more goals, including a second-half penalty, to sway another contest in FC Barcelona's favour. "Messi is our genius, the guy who pulls us through tough games and he's done it again," enthused Daniel Alves.
FC Shakhtar Donetsk were equally powerless in the quarter-finals as Messi this time inspired a 5-1 first-leg romp. "Our main shortcoming was our lack of a Lionel Messi," lamented coach Mircea Lucescu, envious of the forward who scored 56 goals for Barça this term, including 12 in the UEFA Champions League. "If he played for us, I'm sure we would have beaten Barcelona."
Rampant Marseille set record
Former winners Olympique de Marseille rolled back the years in November to produce a vintage performance against MŠK Žilina, setting a new mark for the biggest away win in the competition. The 7-0 demonstration in Slovakia, inspired by André-Pierre Gignac's hat-trick, came as something of a shock given that OM had failed to score in their first two games and barely edged past Pavel Hapal's team 1-0 at the Stade Vélodrome. "It's rare that a team wins by seven goals in the Champions League, so it'll give us great confidence," said playmaker Mathieu Valbuena, whose words proved prophetic as Marseille's fine form continued and the club reached the knockout stages for the first time this century.
United's impressive defence
Manchester United FC may be renowned for attacking football yet their run to the final was undoubtedly founded on a rock-solid rearguard. The exceptional duo of Nemanja Vidić and Rio Ferdinand often hog the plaudits, but Patrice Evra and Chris Smalling were the defenders most used ahead of the Wembley showpiece, which United went into having conceded just four times in 12 outings.
Hardly unique in being unable to keep Barcelona at bay, Sir Alex Ferguson's men will now look to build on their defensive promise, with the manager praising 21-year-old Smalling for his "tremendous demonstration of centre-back play" after the goalless draw at Marseille. The Red Devils were nonetheless unable to match the benchmark set by Arsenal and AFC Ajax, who both reached finals after conceding only twice, the latter achieving the feat in 1995/96 with Edwin van der Sar between the posts.
Zahavi's bolt from blue
Eran Zahavi wasted no time in describing his stunning strike against Olympique Lyonnais as "the most beautiful" of his career – and the gifted Hapoel Tel-Aviv FC playmaker is unlikely to score a better one. His superb overhead kick at the Stade de Gerland had a couple of OL striking legends, Bernard Lacombe and Sonny Anderson, on their feet in the stands, and was heralded by his coach Eli Gutman as "one of the best goals scored in the UEFA Champions League". Spotting Salim Toama's left-wing cross arriving behind him, Zahavi launched himself into an acrobatic finish and left Hugo Lloris no chance as he propelled the ball into the top corner.
Schalke enchanted by 'Mr Champions League'
Eyebrows were raised when Raúl González announced he would be trading the Santiago Bernabéu for Germany's industrial heartland at the age of 33. Any doubts regarding the veteran's motivation levels were quickly dispelled as the Spaniard inspired FC Schalke 04 to their best ever run. The Real Madrid CF legend starred in the quarter-final triumph against FC Internazionale Milano and fully deserved the prolonged celebration he enjoyed with supporters at the end of the second leg.
Equally popular with his team-mates, Raúl was dubbed 'Mr Champions League' by Christoph Metzelder after extending his all-time competition scoring record to 71. Fellow forward Edu added: "Raúl is an incredible player. He scores in training, he scores in matches. He can make the difference at this level time and time again."
Like a fine wine
It has been a vintage year for veterans in the UEFA Champions League and, in particular, for three monuments of the modern game. Now in his 16th season with Inter, Javier Zanetti became the oldest scorer in the history of the competition when he struck against Tottenham at the venerable age of 37 years and 71 days, breaking the mark set by Laurent Blanc in 2002. The Argentina defender held the record for just two weeks, however, with Filippo Inzaghi notching against Madrid aged 37 and 86 days, before Ryan Giggs surpassed them both by finding the Schalke net at the age of 37 and 148 days.
Physical Danes mix it with best
FC København were one of the major success stories after becoming the first Danish club to reach the knockout stages. Ståle Solbakken's charges signalled their intent with wins against FC Rubin Kazan and Panathinaikos FC in their first two group games, although their 1-1 draw with Barcelona was arguably the biggest result of all. "We were on a par with the best team in the world for large parts of the match," Solbakken said. "A draw against a side full of global stars was certainly not unmerited." The Dane's words were echoed by Josep Guardiola who said he had "never come up against a physically stronger team". Sadly for FCK, their dream was ended by Chelsea FC in the last 16.
Slick Shakhtar make giant strides
No sooner had Shakhtar's best run come to a halt at the quarter-final stage than their ambitious president Rinat Akhmetov was demanding improvement. "The serious work is only just beginning," he said. "I believe, step by step, we'll come to win the Champions League." Akhmetov is not the only person to believe in the Ukrainian club, who topped a group that included Arsenal before stunning AS Roma in the round of 16.
Ex-Roma coach Claudio Ranieri also expressed admiration for his slick opponents, saying: "They have young, talented players. They are very good at keeping possession and always find a man unmarked. They remind me of Barcelona." They are not the finished article yet, though, as Barcelona demonstrated in their 6-1 aggregate quarter-final success.
Wait continues for London's finest
It is one of the curiosities of the UEFA Champions League that no side from London has ever reached the pinnacle of the European game, and the city's wait goes on after an unprecedented three teams from the English capital were unable to break the jinx this term. With Wembley Stadium set to welcome the showpiece and Tottenham joining past finalists Arsenal and Chelsea in the group stage, the omens suggested this could be London's year.
All three advanced to the last 16, with Spurs and Chelsea making it through to the quarter-finals. Manchester United reasserted north-west England's traditional dominance at this level by eliminating the Blues, while Tottenham fell to Real Madrid to leave fans of the capital's leading outfits disappointed once again.