Three iconic teams who failed in the European Cup-Champions League

Some clubs have shone domestically without making the final step in the European Cup and its successor

Arsenal, 2004, Champions League, Invincibles

Arsenal team that started against Chelsea in 2004. Picture by Neal Simpson EMPICS Sport

From the Real Madrid side of the 1950s to Pep Guardiola's Barcelona, the greatest European club teams of them all have captured a European Cup or Champions League title at least once. 

In between those triumphs, we have also seen the Eusebio led Benfica of the '60s, the Ajax and Bayern Munich three in a row sides of the 1970s, the Liverpool era that followed and AC Milan of the late '80s and early '90s.

All these sides reached the pinnacle eventually and are remembered avidly to this day.

But sift through the dusts of time and there are other club sides that have made their mark domestically without actually taking that success into Europe's elite club competition either in its old European Cup guise or the Champions League era.

Napoli

Before Diego Maradona arrived in southern Italy in 1984, Napoli was a club that had barely tasted tangible success.

Prior to that, the club only had two Coppa Italia trophies to their name, with one coming in 1962 and the other in 1976.

But with Maradona as the fulcrum and the signings of Brazilian Careca (1987) and Bruno Giordano (1985) to form the Ma-Gi-Ca frontline, Napoli fired themselves into the upper reaches of Serie A, winning the Scudetto in 1987 and 1990 - the only times Napoli have won the Italian league. In 1987, their success came in the form of a domestic double as they also claimed the Coppa Italia.

They achieved those feats at a time when AC Milan were strong and starting to lead the way in Europe.

But Napoli themselves could not transfer their domestic success into a major impact in the European Cup when it was played in a straight knockout format.

While Maradona did help Napoli to the UEFA Cup in 1989, their first foray into the European Cup in the 1987-88 saw them suffering the bad luck of the draw.

 

Argentine striker Diego Armando Maradona, of Napoli, out runs Miguel Poland, "Chendo," of Real Madrid, during a 1st round 1st leg European Champions Cup game in Madrid, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 1987. (AP Photo/Dominique Mollard)

In the very first round of that season's elite European competition, Napoli were drawn against a superb Real Madrid side remembered for the five player contingent of locals called the Quinta del Buitre who were in the midst of a five in a row of La Liga triumphs.

Napoli lost the first leg 2-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu and a 1-1 draw at home against Real wasn't enough to turn the tie around.

In 1990-91, Maradona and co did at least make it past the first round but ended up being knocked out in Round 2 at the hands of Spartak Moscow.

A 0-0 draw in Naples was followed by another scoreless draw in Moscow and a penalty shootout would see Napoli eliminated. Maradona would score in the shootout but Marco Baroni would miss as the Russian club converted all of theirs.

With Maradona struggling with off field issues, the great Napoli era was coming to an end without making a mark in the European Cup.

Funnily enough tonight, the current Napoli generation face Real Madrid in the last 16 first leg, 30 years on from their first round tie.

Real Madrid

From 1966 to 1998, the European Cup/Champions League's most successful club were unable to get their hands on the trophy.

Their greatest hope was the aforementioned Quinta del Buitre who were dominating La Liga in the second half of the 1980s.

That side included then Spain striker Emilio Butragueno (one of the five man Quinta contingent) and Mexican forward Hugo Sanchez.

While they eliminated Napoli in the opening round in 1987-88, Real were unable to reach the final after being knocked out by eventual champions PSV Eindhoven on the away goals rule.

Real Madrid soccer ace Emilio Butragueno is pictured during a training session in this 1989 (AP/Luca Bruno)

They had also been knocked out at the same stage by Bayern Munich the year before, in 1989 AC Milan humiliated them 5-0 in their semi final second leg.

Milan would dump them out on aggregate in the second round the following year.

Yet despite their failure to get over the line in Europe like past and future Real Madrid sides, the Quinta del Buitre remain fondly remembered nonetheless.

Arsenal

Not much needs to be said about the Invincibles who went unbeaten throughout the 2003-04 season. Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires were also part of a vibrant Arsenal side respected to this day that also won the Premier League and FA Cup double in 2002 and enjoyed much success in the era.

Yet Europe proved a bridge too far for them. The 2004 season was the one in which Jose Mourinho's FC Porto caused a stir by winning the Champions League and runners up Monaco overcame Chelsea in the semi finals.

That newly wealthy Chelsea were the side who foiled Arsenal in the quarter finals that season, with Wayne Bridge's winner three minutes from time sealing a 3-2 aggregate victory after the second leg.

There's a real what if for Arsenal as one would have fancied them to go all the way had they been able to overcome Chelsea and get into the last four. 

Arsene Wenger did eventually guide Arsenal to the final two years later where they lost to Barcelona with a core of the Invincibles team. But the players from that era had peaked as a team a couple of years earlier and the opportunity was lost.