For many, the end of the 2002-03 UEFA Champions League season brought relief. It was the final season of the two group-stage tenure of the European competition, a four-year period not many were fond of. The revamp in 1992 put an end to the group stage of six groups comprising four teams, which meant only two runner-ups could qualify for the quarter-finals. That was abolished from 1999-2000, but it was replaced by the dual group stage format, which meant an increase in games after the qualifying rounds – in 1998-99 85 matches were played, from the season that followed to 2002-03, the number games almost doubled, at 157.
The accusation was – and not without reason – that the two group stages made the competition dour and atrocious, and it all becomes a bit too much. With that in mind, it was perhaps fitting that the final game of that season’s competition would be settled by penalties, after a rather listless 120 minutes between Italian rivals AC Milan and Juventus.
But while the end of the tournament was quite dull, there were still dramatic moments and storylines in the entirety of it all. One of them was the beginning of something of a period of decline for Spanish teams, after making up seven of the past 12 semi-finalists, almost like this new format agreed with them. In that time, Real Madrid would beat Bayern Munich and Manchester United in the knockout rounds, winning two titles, Valencia would reach two finals, while Barcelona would reach the last four twice, in one of those seasons they pulled off a quarter-final comeback against Chelsea, going through 6-4 on aggregate despite losing the first leg 3-1. In contrast, the other five semi-final spots were made up by two English teams in Leeds United and Manchester United, while the other three were by the Germans, two for Bayern Munich and one for Bayer Leverkusen.
But if 2002-03 signaled the start of a decline for the Spaniards in the Champions League, it didn’t look it at first. Valencia began the campaign by winning five and drawing one of their six games in the first group stage. Two of those wins were against Liverpool, the first of which at the Mestalla saw the Reds fans applaud their dominant hosts, and, according to many, it was the game that gave Rafael Benitez, Valencia’s coach at the time, the Liverpool job.
That’s probably too simplistic as Benitez wouldn’t arrive at Anfield until almost three years later, and there were reports that the club had a look at Jose Mourinho as well before he opted for Chelsea. But what’s undeniable was Valencia looking a class above Liverpool, whose manager Gerard Houllier admitted to his side being comfortably outplayed and out-thought. In six group games, Liverpool finished with eight points – in third place – Valencia finished with double that amount.
Real Madrid, meanwhile, were hardly letting up. Holders of the title, Los Blancos had added Ronaldo to a squad that hardly needed improving, and while the Brazilian forward wouldn’t score in their first two games – or any of the first group stage games for that matter – Vicente Del Bosque’s men would bag nine goals in their opening two matches, including a comprehensive 3-0 win in Rome against Italian champions Roma. But on Matchday three, Real would draw 3-3 at AEK Athens, and didn’t win another game until the second group stage.
Real Madrid had undeniable talent, but as that AEK game showed they were defensively flawed, there was hardly organisation or cohesion at the back, or sometimes even upfront. In that era, a team of super stars could still tear other big guns a new one, as Real showed in the second group stage against Milan, and in the quarter-final against Manchester United. But those games also exposed frailties; the inability of defenders to track their men, a lack of discipline and resolve at the back. In the semis, Juventus exploited that well, particularly in the second leg, which the Bianconeri won 3-1 for a 4-3 aggregate victory.
When Real won the Champions League in 2002, beating Leverkusen for a ninth title and a third in five years, ITV commentator Clyve Tyldesley remarked on how the European Cup ‘knows its way’ to the Bernabeu. Little did anyone know that Real wouldn’t win it against for some 12 years, and wouldn’t even make the last four for nine. There was some swagger and arrogance in this side, but that also bred complacency, something Monaco took advantage of in the quarter-finals in 2004, and the following year began a jinx of six successive last 16 eliminations.
In that run of successive first knockout round exits, Real watched rivals Barcelona lift the Champions League. Barca’s second of those triumphs, in 2009, marked the beginning of a dominant and unplayable spell under the tutelage of former midfielder Pep Guardiola. But back in 2002-03, it was far from plain-sailing. Barcelona may have made a flying start in the first group stage, but all was not well in the second managerial spell of Dutchman Louis van Gaal. Los Cules won all their six first group stage games in the Champions League, but they also managed that amount of league wins in 19 games, and by January of 2003, Van Gaal was gone.
Serbian Radomir Antic came in to steady the ship, but a sixth-place finish in the league would be their worst finish in 15 years. Yet, in Europe, they were thriving, and not until February 2003, their fourth game in the second group stage, did they fail to win in the Champions League, a goalless draw at the San Siro against Inter. In the knockout phase, though, their journey would end, and the only bright spot in their season would stop, a 2-1 defeat at home to Juventus ensured a 3-2 aggregate loss, and thus, the beginning of a sticky period in Europe.
Barcelona won the Champions League in 2006 under another Dutchman, Antic’s replacement Frank Rijkaard, but that was the exception on the continent rather than the norm. In their other Champions League campaigns up until Pep Guardiola arrived in 2008, Barca were far from secure defensively and found it hard to get the better of organised sides, as seen in their eliminations at the hands of Manchester United (2008), Liverpool (2007), and Chelsea (2005). In that Chelsea tie, the second leg saw the Spanish side’s defence horribly exposed, conceding three times in nine minutes. They would come back to gain a foothold in the tie, but their back-line would let them down again, being completely suspect at set-pieces.
It may seem a bit disingenuous to state that the 2002-03 season was the beginning of a cloudy period for Spanish teams in Europe – given that the very following season Deportivo reached a Champions League semi-final, and three of the following four UEFA Cup winners were Spanish sides, Valencia and Sevilla – but in the Champions League, Spanish teams became stuck. Aside from Barca’s triumph in 2006, the period from 2003 and 2008 saw only two Spanish sides in the semis, Barca in 2008 and Deportivo in 2004.
While Spanish sides were starting to flail in Europe’s big time, for English sides, particularly Manchester United, it seemed like another shot at destiny. United looked fated to make the final the previous season, and set Sir Alex Ferguson for a 2002 finale in his beloved Glasgow, just before his presumed retirement. But Fergie would renounce his plans to call it quits on the dugout, and also Bayer Leverkusen – in the semis – would have other ideas, knocking out United on away goals. The 2002-03 campaign’s final, however, would be played at Old Trafford, and it seemed like fate had thrown the Red Devils another chance for glorious triumph.
They faced Real Madrid in quarter-finals and would be on the end of a first leg master class from Los Blancos in the first leg; a Raul brace and a Figo goal helping the defending champions to a 3-1 win. The second leg would finish 4-3 in United’s favour at Old Trafford, but it didn’t quite the whole story, especially the case of Ronaldo (the ‘real Ronaldo’) scoring a fantastic treble and coming off to applause from the home fans.
The standout name from that Champions League season was arguably Juventus’ Pavel Nedved. The Czech midfielder would steal the show in this European campaign, with masterful displays for the Bianconeri on their way to the final, scoring crucial goals against Spain’s big two in both the quarter-final (Barcelona) and semi-final (Real Madrid). By December of 2003, he’d won the Ballon d’Or award, and that in a way highlighted how football was still perceived back then; Nedved didn’t quite rack up the stats – less than five goals, less than four assists – but his influence and importance to Juve was undeniable. Perhaps in this age, of stats and social media sniggers, a few number crunchers would have done a bit to invalidate his imperativeness to how Juve function. But Nedved would miss out on playing in the final with Juve against Milan, and would only watch as his side lost to their domestic rivals on penalties at Old Trafford.
That seemed to sum up Nedved’s career, falling short right at or before the big stage. Nedved and his Czech Republic side arrived at Euro 2000 three years earlier to much expectation, only to make a hash of things. Four years later in Portugal, the Czechs and their talisman won their three group games, beating both Germany and Holland, as well as thrashing Denmark in the last eight, before falling to eventual champions Greece via the silver goal rule in extra-time. Then in 2006, the national side entered their first World Cup as the Czech Republic. Ranked second in the world, Nedved and his side began by demolishing the USA 3-0, before they’d make a mess of things again, as defeats to Ghana and Italy resulted in a first-round exit.
But for Nedved, Manchester United, and the Spanish others, the most significant aspect of this season was the reading of the two group stage format its last rites. The prospect of two immediate rounds in a season without any real form of jeopardy hardly interested anyone, and not many have missed it since.