How The Previous Champions League Holders Fell
No club side have ever retained the Champions League. In the old European Cup it was a fairly regular occurrence but since 1992/93 not one winner could repeat their heroics the next season. As United attempt to do it for the first time, let's have a look at where the others failed.
Olympique Marseille, the first winners in the new format, had no chance of defending their trophy: they were barred from next year's competition after it transpired that they had fixed a game in their domestic league. Ouch.
Incredibly enough, not one title holder managed to claw their way back to the final the next season since 1997. The explanation is simple: 1997/98 was the first year when runners-up were allowed in the competition. The number of representatives of the biggest leagues began to increase and with that retaining the trophy became increasingly difficult.
And after 2004 not one holder survived the last 16 until United knocked out Inter. Don't make me go through all that as I've done it once, before our clash with Mourinho's side. Numerous different failures but there are three different categories of reasons in my opinion.
First, there were holders who were simply unlucky the next season: like Louis van Gaal's delightful Ajax side who lost out on penalties in 1996 - or Juventus the next season who fought their way back into the final against Dortmund only to witness the unlikeliest of fairy tales: Dortmund local boy Lars Ricken, 20, comes on and 16 seconds after his introduction scores a fantastic goal with his second touch of the ball to clinch the title for Borussia.
But I could add United in 2000: when wobbling Real Madrid visited Manchester after a 0-0 draw in the first leg few expected them to offer much resistance. United were meant to destroy them, we were right on top of our game while they weren't even challenging for their domestic title that season. Yet in a game that defied logic United wasted a staggering amount of chances, Iker Casillas performed like a man possessed and their lethal counter-attacking well and truly dumped us out of Europe - and Sir Alex realised the need for change.
Another unfortunate team were Milan in 1995: they were up against Ajax Amsterdam who had a certain Edwin van der Sar in goal and many expected fireworks: after all, Milan won the previous final 4-0 while Ajax were famous of their free-flowing attacking football. However, it was a cagey, cautious game, decided by a brilliant piece of marksmanship from Patrick Kluivert.
Then there were those who did not build on their success, who rested on their laurels and did not strive to improve. This is the biggest bracket: it involves Bayern Munich of 2002, going down to Real Madrid in a fairly indifferent campaign for them, or Madrid themselves who did not strengthen their defence after their 2002 success and this weakness was brutally exposed by Juventus in the 2003 semi-final after several warning signs, the most notable being a battering at Dortmund where they escaped with a last-minute equaliser.
The same could be said of Barcelona in 2007 and Milan in 2008: they weren't hungry enough, weren't motivated enough. Neither team was freshened up after winning the trophy in the previous season and both were eliminated by more determined and focused opposition in the last 16.
And there were teams who simply had nothing more in themselves and even their first victory was somewhat of a surprise. The classic case would be Porto who were taken apart after winning the trophy in 2004 or Borussia Dortmund who still did quite well as holders in 1998, advancing into the semi-finals where they succumbed to Real Madrid. And of course Liverpool: no sane man expected them to retain their title and they were comfortably beaten by Benfica.
Sure, there are beaten holders which fit neither category: I wouldn't call the Milan side of 2004 unlucky as they were simply destroyed but it would be unfair to say that their ideas needed refreshing: after all they won the Serie A in that season. But my point is that so far United avoided the most common mistakes: we did not become complacent, we freshened up the squad and reviewed the tactical options.
But the above examples show clearly that there are numerous ways in which you can go wrong in the Champions League. It's been a long, long time since any holder advanced to the last hurdle the next season so it is a brilliant achievement in itself. But earlier examples prove that it is possible to fall at this hurdle - and there are countless ways to do it as the 1995, 1996 and 1997 finals prove it.
It is a minor miracle that we're here, in Rome. It would be nothing short of legendary if we managed to win.