From Maldini and Zidane to Aguero and O Fenômeno, we create a greatest all-time XI from the highly anticipated UEFA Champions League semifinal matchups.
Fate may have delivered two near-perfect UEFA Champions League semifinals. There’s a fierce and fiery Derby della Madonnina, fought between two of Europe’s most prestigious and storied clubs that reside in the same city.
And there’s the battle between the haves and have-nots. Not in a financial sense, of course, but in the sense of European pedigree — those who have been there before, are molded in success at the highest level, and those who seek it as if it were the last thing on Earth. A truly paradoxical pair of games.
To celebrate, we’ve picked two all-time combined XIs from both semifinals.
Milan vs. Inter
Goalkeeper: Walter Zenga
Any goalkeeper known widely as The Spider, a being with eight arms, is surely primed to be picked here. In Zenga’s 23 years with the Nerazzurri, he was as known for his showmanship — playing to the gallery between saves — as his shot-stopping ability.
Left Back: Paolo Maldini
The best left back of all time, probably the best defender of all time, and who could argue? A total of 647 appearances for Milan and 126 for the Azzurri, countless trophies, and a sophistication that is since unparalleled. A black-and-white Maldini highlight reel wouldn’t look out of place as an auteur screening at the Sundance Film Festival.
Center Back: Franco Baresi
Another scholar in the art of defending. Baresi also spent his entire career at Milan, spanning two decades, three European Cups, six Scudettos, and a World Cup with the Italian national team. Milan, a club known for its penchant for central defenders, literally retired the No. 6 shirt in his honor. Legend.
Center Back: Alessandro Costacurta
What’s that, another Milan lifer makes the list? Alessandro Costacurta spent 21 years at Milan, making over 450 appearances. He scored his first Serie A goal against Inter, making him an instant legend. They don’t come much better than “Billy.”
Right Back: Javier Zanetti
Mr. Versatile himself. Zanetti could feature in almost every position in this XI, but a tidy job at right back suits him nicely. Zanetti played some of his best football at right back. I think. He made over 600 appearances for Internazionale, so surely some of his right back performances were his best. The epitome of the long-sleeve, tucked-in-shirt, neatly-combed-hair-captain vibe.
Center Midfielder: Lothar Matthäus
It’s actually quite hard to picture Lothar Matthäus in anything other than a Germany shirt. Which makes sense, as some of his most iconic moments came during his 150 appearances for Die Mannschaft. You could’ve forgiven some fans for thinking that he was thawed out during international tournaments to torment your nation. But alas: Der Panzer played perhaps his best club football for Inter.
Center Midfielder: Ruud Gullit
An essential part of the Tre Tulipani trio of Dutchmen that formed the heart of one of the best club sides in the history of football, Ruud Gullit is a shoe-in. A Ballon d’Or winner, a double European Cup-winner, a triple Scudetto-winner — he was an effortlessly talented player. So talented that he could fit anywhere in this XI.
Attacking Midfielder: Kaká
Kaká is responsible for my favorite header in the history of football. You know the one: it’s not a clearance nor a goal itself — it’s the deftest of touches between two oncoming Manchester United defenders (who subsequently collide in comic fashion), putting him clean through to slot home at Old Trafford. Hilarious, stupendous, and genuinely genius. Watching this passage of play is all you need to know about Kaká’s inclusion here.
Attacking Midfielder: Wesley Sneijder
It’s easy to get misty-eyed and hyperbolic about Wesley Sneijder’s 2010 season with Inter Milan. But it really was the stuff of legend. A central part of Inter’s famous treble-winning team, a Champions League final assist, a harsh fourth-place finish in the Ballon d’Or voting — he even endeared himself to the Inter faithful with a red card in the Derby della Madonnina. A truly mythical football figure.
Striker: Ronaldo Nazário
Do we really need to explain this one? He might have scored more goals at Real Madrid, but O Fenômeno played his most spellbinding football at Inter Milan, between 1997 and 2002. Long-sleeved, still with a hint of that babyface that so captured the imagination of advertisers everywhere, this Ronaldo was hands-down the best footballer on the planet.
Striker: Marco Van Basten
Another third of Tre Tulipani, Van Basten’s injuries meant he played fewer than 300 games in his entire senior club career, and just 147 for Milan. But in those games, he scored 90 mostly magnificent goals that confirmed his profile as one of the most devastating finishers in world football. A giant of Milan’s dominant late-1980s side.
Real Madrid vs. Manchester City
Goalkeeper: Iker Casillas
The youngest ever goalkeeper to win a Champions League at just 19 years old. Real Madrid’s all-time leader in appearances for a goalkeeper at just 27 years old. A buyout clause of over $120 million…in 2008. Casillas was the goalkeeper of his generation, Real Madrid through and through, and a clear starter in this team.
Left Back: Roberto Carlos
The most gigantic thighs in the game. Roberto Carlos was a modern full back before modern full backs. In over 11 years with Real Madrid, he scored 47 goals, many of them spectacular. Invented the no technique-technique for freekicks, opting instead to manipulate physics with sheer force to devastating effect. It was reported that his shots reached over 100 miles per hour on many occasions. A striker in disguise.
Center Back: Sergio Ramos
The master of the dark arts. The eminently unlikable, completely villainous and terrifyingly imperious Sergio Ramos is the captain of this side. The most-capped player in the history of the Spanish national team. Over 70 goals in almost 500 appearances for Los Blancos. He’s a bonafide legend at the position.
Center Back: Vincent Kompany
In a joint XI, you should be able to make space for Manchester City’s best ever defender. In 11 years at City, Kompany blossomed into one of the best center backs in the history of the Premier League, captaining the side during its transition from just the noisy neighbors to one of the most dominant teams in Europe. His talent and role in that cannot be understated.
Left Back: Michel Salgado
The tireless man known as Il Due is probably the best right back in Real Madrid’s history, which is some going. A fearless tackler and a dynamic attacker, Salgado played over 250 games for Madrid over a 10-year spell at the club. Excellent hair, too.
Center Midfielder: Luka Modric
Ballon d’Or-winning Luka Modric. I’m convinced he’ll still be pirouetting effortlessly into midfield pockets long into his 70s. He typifies everything that is pure and good about the game of football. One of the greatest midfielders of all time.
Center Midfielder: David Silva
Mr. Assists himself. During his 10 year career with Manchester City, El Mago turned the midfield position into an art form. Silva’s ability to glide across the pitch, manipulating space and momentum was truly one of the most special things to witness on a football pitch. At 37, he continues to do the same for Real Sociedad to this day. A pivot of Silva and Modric? You better get used to chasing shadows, my friend.
Attacking Midfielder: Zinedine Zidane
Zizou. For my money, he’s behind only Lionel Messi and Diego Maradona in the list of the greatest footballers of all time. A true wizard. He won everything there was to win as a player, and scored the best goal we’ve ever seen in a Champions League final (sorry Bale, but Zizou’s volley against Leverkusen is just better). The Galáctico of all Galácticos.
Forward: Cristiano Ronaldo
Ronny. CR7. Some (incorrectly) say the GOAT. There are a number of ways to describe Cristiano Ronaldo. But you can’t argue with five Ballon d’Or awards, five Champions Leagues, the all-time scorer in the Champions League, Portugal’s record appearance holder, and the record number of goals scored for the biggest club in the history of the sport. A goalscoring machine.
Forward: Karim Benzema
Is Karim Benzema currently the best striker on the planet? Maybe. His Ballon d’Or would suggest so. In his 14 years at Real Madrid, Benzema has scored 233 goals — the second most of any player in the club’s history. He holds the club record for assists and has won five Champions Leagues. His off-field drip is almost as good as his goal scoring on it. A modern legend.
Forward: Sergio Aguero
“We can (*sobs*) never replace him.”
Well, Pep, you don’t need to, because he’s made the cut. Robbed of an opportunity to extend his legend at Barcelona by retiring due to a heart condition, Aguero’s Manchester City career fortunately made up for the difference. He’s the highest non-English scorer in the history of the Premier League, the fourth-highest of all-time. He’s Manchester City’s all-time leading scorer, winning five Premier League titles in the process. He was responsible for that moment against QPR on the final day of the 2011-12 season. A scary prospect in this team.