Win Saturday and Real Madrid will become the first club to retain Europe’s premier club competition since AC Milan in 1990, and the only team to do so in its current format.
Zinedine Zidane, whose appointment was met with skepticism, will have led Los Blancos to their first league and European Cup double since 1958.
Not since the days of Ferenc Puskás and Alfredo Di Stéfano has a Real team conquered all before them on both fronts.
And yet, despite a Spanish record 40-game unbeaten run this season, many still hesitate to call them truly “Great.”
Even a cross-section of the club’s own support has struggled to love this team at times this season, whistling Cristiano Ronaldo on the rare occasion he falls short of perfection.
“I don’t like it. Being criticized in my stadium isn’t normal,” Ronaldo said this week. “In Manchester it never happened to me, as the mentality is different.”
History remembers the winners, and all qualms will surely be forgotten should Real beat Juventus in Saturday’s final.
But how will history remember this team?
From the first ever European Cup winners to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, CNN Sport looks back on five great club teams. Have your say on which was the best.
Real Madrid (1956 - 1960)
June, 1960. The European Cup has been around for half a decade but only one name has been inscribed on the trophy: Real Madrid.
Playing a gung-ho 3-2-5 formation, Los Blancos have swept aside all before them, winning five consecutive finals.
Ferenc Puskás, star of Hungary’s Magical Magyars, complements Frenchman Raymond Kopa and two-time Ballon d’Or winner Alfredo Di Stéfano. It’s a team to make the Galacticos bow.
May 18, 1960. The crowd of 127,621 that watch Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 on a windy day in Glasgow is treated to football in its highest form, with then Scotsman football reporter Hugh McIlvanney writing of a “strange emotionalism” overcoming those in attendance.
The Germans are no pushovers – beating Rangers 12-4 on aggregate in the semifinals – but that only adds to the majesty of Real’s win, with Puskas and Di Stéfano scoring all seven goals between them.
Di Stéfano. The “Blonde arrow” is on the score sheet in five consecutive European Cup finals. He remains the top scorer in the history of the Europe’s premier club competition until 2007, when he is overtaken by fellow Real Madrid great, Raúl.
“Real were from another planet. We watched open-mouthed.” — Jimmy Greaves, second-top scorer in the history of Europe’s top five leagues.
“I played in eight finals in total and I won six. We were the strongest team in the world and it was a huge pleasure to play with so many magical players.” — Real Madrid outside-left Francisco Gento, the only player in history to have won six European Cups
No cabinet holds more European Cups (11) than the Bernabéu trophy room to this day.
Totaalvoetbal. A revolutionary style of play characterized by complete positional versatility and intense pressing.
Crafted by Rinus Michels, enacted by Johan Cruyff. Playing a flexible 4-3-3, Ajax become the first side to win three consecutive Champions League titles since the great Real Madrid side of the 50s.
April 25, 1973. Real Madrid 0-1 Ajax. Midfielder Gerrie Mühren nonchalantly controls a crossfield ball with the instep of his left foot before carrying out a series of kickups at the Bernabéu; it’s a moment that crystallizes the power swing from Madrid to Amsterdam, as Ajax progress and win a third consecutive final.
Cruyff. The lithe, impudent Dutch teenager that went on to win eight Eredivisie titles and change football forever. The Times journalist David Miller wrote of him at the time being like “Pythagoras in boots.”
“Total Football was, among other things, a conceptual revolution based on the idea that the size of any football field was flexible and could be altered by a team playing on it” — David Winner, Brilliant Orange
“We could have been champions of Europe forever if we’d stayed together.” —Gerrie Mühren, Ajax midielder
The “Cruyffian” brand of football is revered by generations to come; Xavi later says “We are sons of the system.”
“It’s a big honor that people think I can follow his legacy, or even try,” Pep Guardiola tells CNN, speaking of his former mentor. “There’s no bigger title than that.”
Paisley’s Liverpool (1976 -1983)
A miner’s son that drove a tank in World War II, Bob Paisley is initially hesitant when approached to succeed legendary Liverpool boss Bill Shankly, comparing the task to steering a boat in gale force winds.
The so-called “reluctant genius” goes on to guide the Reds to 20 trophies in nine seasons, playing a free-flowing 4-4-2 with flying wingers and a succession of prolific center forwards, from Kevin Keegan to Ian Rush.
Such was Liverpool’s domestic dominance, Paisley once said: “I’ve been here during the bad times too – one year we came second.”
May 25 is a date indelibly etched in the history of the red half of Liverpool – and not just for 2005’s “Miracle of Istanbul.” It is also the day the club won its first ever European Cup, overcoming Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-1 at the Stadio Olimpico in the Italian capital 40 years ago.
“Rome falls for the lions of Liverpool,” pronounces the Liverpool Daily Post the following morning, after goals from Terry McDermott, Phil Neal and uncompromising defender Tommy Smith.
Paisley loses star striker Keegan to Hamburger SV that summer but recruits Alan Hansen and Kenny Dalglish. The Reds retain the trophy against Belgium’s Club Brugge the following season at Wembley.
Dalglish. “King Kenny.” For Paisley, the source of the Scot’s genius “is not only in his own ability but in making others play.” He wins six league titles as a Liverpool player and a further three in the Anfield dugout.
“Liverpool did more than beat the West German champions Borussia Mönchengladbach – they obliterated them.” — Liverpool Echo journalist Michael Charters
“Praise from Bob Paisley was like a snowstorm in the Sahara. He may have been regarded as a fatherly figure by the supporters but he ruled at Anfield with a rod of iron.” — Former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness
Sacchi’s AC Milan (1988 - 1991)
Home-grown defensive masterminds Paolo Maldini and Franco Baresi. The Silvio Berlusconi-funded Dutch trident of Ruud Guulit, Marco van Basten and Frank Rikjaard. The first team since Paisley’s Liverpool to win consecutive European Cups.
From the balletic grace of Van Basten to the defensive prowess of Baresi, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan side has it all, and it says it all that no team has successfully defended Europe’s premier club competition since.
Baresi defies his diminutive stature, mixing guile and ruthlessness, to marshal Milan’s high defensive line with poise and discipline.
May 24th 1989: AC Milan 4-0 Steau Bucharest
Steaua, 1986 European champions, had not lost a domestic league game in Romania for more than three years; that doesn’t stop Milan winning one of the most one-sided finals in the history of the competition. La Rossoneri retain the trophy against Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Benfica a year later.
“Sacchi started a revolution in Italian football, at a mental and tactical level. We had our style of playing and we were trying to impose it on all opponents, from amateurs in a mid-week training game to Real Madrid at the Bernabéu.” — Roberto Donadoni, Milan and Italy legend
“Arrigo completely changed Italian football – the philosophy, the training methods, the intensity, the tactics. Italian teams used to focus on defending – we defended by attacking and pressing.” — Carlo Ancelotti
“We are incredibly proud when they compare us with Sacchi’s Milan. That was a side which made history in football.” — Xavi
Italian press might initially dub him “Signor Nessuno” – bringing to mind the “Arsene Who?” headline that greeted Arsene Wenger’s appointment many years later – but it’s indicative of the sheer personality of Sacchi’s Milan that six of the starting 11 that night at the Camp Nou – from Mauro Tassotti to Ancelotti – go on to become top level managers themselves.
Guardiola’s Barcelona (2008 - 2012)
Three years. Two Champions League final victories against Manchester United. A starting XI comprising seven La Masia graduates on both occasions.
Not just football, but a philosophy. Mes que un club, and then some.
November 29, 2010: Barcelona 5-0 Real Madrid.
La Super Manita. The fifth time Barcelona had beaten Real Madrid 5-0 in La Liga history. Guardiola’s fifth El Clasico win in five matches as Barcelona coach.
Jose Mourinho has the most expensively-assembled side in history but his record-breaking start to life at the Bernabéu is brutally curbed.
Guardiola tells his team to “play like the football is a ball of fire.”
Xavi, walking ideologue of Barcelona’s philosophy, opens the scoring. Youth graduate Jeffrén puts Real Madrid out of their misery in added time. Sergio Ramos still finds time to be sent off. Gerard Pique flashes five fingers.
“We had in our team very, very good players … But this Barcelona is better. Much better” — Everton manager Ronald Koeman, star of Barca’s 1992 “Dream Team”
“They mesmerize you with their passing. Nobody has ever given us a hiding like that” — Legendary Man United manager Alex Ferguson
“It was incredible. I got to be a witness to true genius.” — Former Barcelona fullback Dani Alves, now playing for Juventus
“Goals fall at Camp Nou like autumn leaves: naturally, beautifully and serenely” — Ramón Besa, El País sportswriter
Guardiola’s men win 14 of the 19 competitions they enter; a new benchmark is set.