Sports

Remembering The Greatest Champions League Nights At Wembley

When Tottenham kick off against Monaco at Wembley, it will be the first time the stadium has hosted the Champions League in three years. There have been some great European nights at Wembley, and some disasters, too.
September 14, 2016, 4:00pm
Batistuta scores against Arsenal at Wembley, 1999 // PA Images

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

When Tottenham kick off against Monaco at Wembley on Wednesday evening, it will be the first time the stadium has hosted Champions League football in three years. The last occasion was a warm and humid evening in May 2013, when Borussia Dortmund took on Bayern Munich in a pulsating, heartbreaking, all-German affair. While most of us were cheering for Jurgen Klopp's underdogs, Jupp Heynckes' Bayern stole the show. They won through a combination of total football, total commitment and a last-minute goal from Arjen Robben. They clawed the Champions League trophy from the hands of their rivals, and brandished it aloft on the rich, green Wembley turf.

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It was the ultimate European night, and a reminder that, even though it's shite the rest of the time, Wembley comes alive for the Champions League.

The 'new' Wembley is not a good venue, see. It is a fucking awful venue, for all the reasons provided here. It is an expensive non-place, a formica hell, an overwrought corporate waiting room where the noble dream of football goes to die. That said, there is something irrepressible about the Champions League, synonymous as it is with the obscenely lucrative world of modern football. It is big, bold and wonderfully overblown, and in that sense it manages to own Wembley, to eclipse even the refurbished Home of Football in its glossy spectacle and superlative production values.

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That is perhaps why, more than any other event, the Champions League finals held at the 'new' Wembley have been memorable. The clash between Dortmund and Bayern was so dramatic, so bombastic, that Wembley was caught up in its narrative thread. Bayern were the evil empire, Dortmund the rebel alliance and, with the former announcing the impending signing of Mario Gotze mere weeks before the grand finale, it was difficult not to see the game as a compelling clash between right and wrong. In the end, 'wrong' won the day. When you think about it, is that not what modern football is all about?

If Dortmund's ill-fated clash with Bayern was a scintillating European night at Wembley, it was preceded by a similarly bombastic occasion. Two years earlier, in May 2011, the 'new' stadium had hosted its ever first Champions League final (and Wembley's first since 1992, when the competition was still known as the European Cup). Manchester United faced off against an all-conquering Barcelona side, right at the pinnacle of their possession-based pomp. It was mooted to be Sir Alex Ferguson's last game before retirement but, in the end, the result was so emphatic that he had to rethink his plans.

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Once again, Wembley was caught up in the burgeoning narrative. With Ferguson watching on from the sidelines, United were thumped thanks to three gorgeous goals from Pedro, Messi and David Villa. It felt as if Ferguson had missed his last shot at European silverware and, despite the fact that he stayed on for another two seasons, that instinct was ultimately proved to be right. One empire had risen, another had fallen, and Wembley was the shiny new arena in which the decisive battle had been fought.

While it's difficult to compare Tottenham's group stage with the illustrious finals of the last half-decade, there's precedent for theatrics at Wembley in the early rounds of the Champions League, too. The last team to play their European home matches there were none other than Arsenal who, in a bid to boost attendances, struck a deal to play at the run-down but nationally beloved 'old' Wembley in the 1998/99 season, as well as the next campaign. What followed were a series of explosive nights on the continental stage, though they were generally disastrous for the nominal 'home' side.

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Not only did Arsene Wenger's men exit at the group stage in both of their seasons playing Champions League football at Wembley, they did so in spectacular fashion. In November 1998, an Arsenal side that included David Seaman, Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka, not to mention the famous back four, crashed out of the competition after losing 1-0 at home to RC Lens. This was the spirit of 'old' Wembley in all its glory, and in sharp contrast to its polished successor stadium. In a ground that had hosted dozens of domestic upsets, one steeped in a history of underdog triumphs and unlikely wins, Arsenal were overcome by a team that would go on to finish sixth in Ligue 1. The 'home' fans might have watched through their hands, but it made for compelling viewing for everyone else.

The following season, in a result that now seems painfully familiar, Arsenal were battered at home by a fantastic Barcelona side. Rivaldo, Luis Enrique, Luis Figo and Phillip Cocu got the goals, and Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieira and co. were done for. Their 4-2 hammering at the hands of Barca was followed up by a 1-0 defeat to Fiorentina, in which Gabriel Batistuta scored an absolute screamer to relegate the 'home' side to third place in the group. Arsenal had limped through two seasons at Wembley and, disastrous as it had been for them, it had been magnificent entertainment from start to finish.

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It's little surprise that Arsenal's Wembley experiment ended there, really, and in October 2000 the 'old' stadium was closed for good. European football had done for Wembley, in the same way that Wembley had done for Arsenal's European chances. As it turns out, the Home of Football was as much of a 'home' ground for the North London side as the Santiago Bernabeu. Tottenham would do well to heed their rivals' historical misfortunes when they take to the pitch against Monaco, lest Les Rouges et Blancs turn out to be a latter-day RC Lens.

Ahead of the latest Champions League foray at Wembley, then, there are plenty of great European fixtures from which Spurs might draw inspiration. There have been great goals, showpiece performances and unforgettable moments, eternalised in the blink of an eye. In the glossy modern era, Wembley has been the home of exhibition football, and in the rose-tinted past, it was the scene of several extremely disappointing results for Arsenal. If that's not a decent omen for Tottenham this season then, well, we don't know what is.

@W_F_Magee