The UEFA Champions League. It is one of the greatest sporting competitions ever created in the history of sport.
It has always had that special aura about it, as the elite football clubs of Europe annually collide in a cauldron of intense battles and emotions that is arguably only rivalled by the FIFA World Cup.
Easy on the eye, effortless in its immersion of its audience, which is largely through the breathtaking quality of its content, participation itself in this famous competition is a feat on its own. But how would it feel to actually win it once? Or twice? Or even thrice?
The likes of modern day greats such as Xavi and Iniesta have won an unprecedented three European crowns for the one team in FC Barcelona. Samuel Eto’o has won three titles himself, having scored the equaliser in Paris in 2006 against Arsenal and the opener in Rome against Manchester United to establish himself as a legend of the blaugrana, whilst further establishing his European legend with a vital role in Internazionale’s 2009/10 treble winning side.
Most of the greats have won the hallowed cup, affectionately dubbed 'The Big Ears', from Didier Drogba to Marco Van Basten or Rio Ferdinand to Paulo Maldini or Iker Casillas to Oliver Kahn. But for some, the Champions League has become quite elusive, so here are the top five stars in European football who are yet to get their hands on 'The Big Ears', who also have time counting against them.
The players age, success/star power and the opportunities afforded to them in the form of finals/ semi-finals have been the primary considerations in that particular order.
5) Klaas Jan Huntelaar | Schalke
This Dutch goalscoring machine has reignited a stuttering career at the Veltins-Arena with Schalke over the last two years having plundered a staggering 70 goals in less than 100 appearances.
Having netted 48 of those last term and continuing on with his imperious form this term, 'The Hunter' as he is known, is a world-class striker who should have won the Champions league by now.
He has played for the likes of traditional European powerhouses Ajax, Real Madrid and AC Milan and although he was unable to go to the next level in his career at the latter two clubs like many had predicted, Schalke have provided an opportunity for him to realise what would be a childhood dream.
Having already reached the semi-finals in 2011 with Schalke, and having found a way to juggle priorities on two fronts so far this season having impressed in the group stages by sitting on top of their group ahead of Arsenal as well as being second in the Bundesliga for most of the season, there is genuine hope for the man chasing Patrick Kluivert's goalscoring record for the national team of 40 goals in the coming years.
At 29, he is nearing the end of his prime playing years, and therefore time is against him.
4) Robin van Persie | Manchester United
The former Gunners star had a rather barren time at the Emirates stadium in terms of trophies won, with the meaningless Community Shield and the more coveted FA Cup the only pieces of silverware he acquired during his Arsenal career, all before the age of 22.
The UEFA Cup has been the only European competition he has won, way back in 2002 with Feyenoord, but one imagines that as he has matured and developed, he should have kicked on and won some major trophies by now, aged 29.
Of course it’s not his fault, but the lack of opportunities to win the Champions League in his career with only one semi-final appearance to show for as well as being an unused substitute in the 2006 final loss to Barcelona, has meant that 'RVP' comes in at number four.
His recent controversial move to rivals Manchester United presents an opportunity for him to finally get his hands on that one major trophy that has eluded him, given the Red Devil’s excellent recent record in Europe.
Being six days older than Huntelaar, Van Persie will be 30 by the start of next season. He has done well to get on top of his injuries over the last couple of years to play career best football, however his injury prone history does not bode well and therefore his next injury could put him into decline and deny him an opportunity at Champions League glory.
3) Arjen Robben | Bayern Munich
The flying Dutchman has worn the shirts of some of Europe’s greatest teams in Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. He has also suffered his fair share of heartaches along the way as well, especially on the continent.
Having bowed out in two semi-finals with Chelsea by way of a penalty shoot-out and a ghost goal, as well as losing two finals with Bayern Munich in three seasons, Robben has been unfortunate to say the least.
With the many chances he has had to get his hands on that elusive trophy, its difficult to understand how he hasn’t won one yet. Luck has certainly been rotten for the winger, but nearly not much as his injury prone history.
Having consistently become good friends with club doctors wherever he has gone, such is the time he has had to spend with them, his body may well fail him in the near future. At 28 he is still in his prime but he is nearing his 30s so therefore with his injury history, it’s no certainty he will get a Champions League winners medal, even if his team does end up getting one.
2) Zlatan Ibrahimovic | Paris Saint-Germain
The Swedish powerhouse has had a stellar start to his career at the Parc de Princes since his mega-money move from AC Milan in the summer.
He is arguably the best striker in the world right now having experienced a rebirth of sorts since leaving the Nou Camp in 2011.
He has scored goals for fun at Milan and at PSG as well as playing spectacularly for Sweden, as highlighted by his outrageous four-goal haul against England in a recent friendly, scoring a blind bicycle goal from some 30 yards out.
His starring performance at Euro 2012 for Sweden has caused some people to reconsider their opinion on 'Ibra' that he is a choker in big games, having gathered a reputation for being ineffective in big Champions League matches.
The 195cm giant has played for the likes of Ajax, Juventus, Internazionale, Barcelona and Milan and went an amazing seven years winning the domestic league title from 2005-2011. That statistic alone should virtually give Ibrahimovic a Champions League by virtue of the perpetual success he has experienced wherever he has gone.
However, it can now be seen that he is somewhat of a curse in the Champions League with Inter and Barcelona both triumphing in the competition immediately after his departure.
PSG are determined on building a team that is capable of challenging the upper echelons of European football with the willingness to spend huge sums of money on top quality players like Ibrahimovic himself and the likes of Thiago Silva, Javier Pastore and Ezequiel Lavezzi to transform the Paris outfit into a European giant.
If 'Zlatan' can be at the heart of everything at PSG while he continues his outstanding form, then there is no telling how far they can go in this season's edition of the Champions League. After all, he is 31 and there may not be too many chances left after this season.
1) Gianluigi Buffon | Juventus
The world's most expensive goalkeeper has been a mainstay at the Juventus Stadium since his move from Parma in 2001.
The Italian legend and World Cup winner has experienced title triumph, relegation and promotion in a roller-coaster career for the Bianconneri, while at the same time establishing himself as one of, if not the greatest modern day goalkeepers.
Now captain for the Old Lady, Juventus are in the Champions League for the first time in three years and have recently knocked off defending champions Chelsea in ruthless fashion to all but book their place in the round of 16.
Having come closest to winning 'The Big Ears' in 2003 in an all-Italian final at Old Trafford, Juventus lost out in the most excruciating circumstances on penalties after a drab affair brought no goals.
Ten years on from that final, and Juventus are on somewhat of a revenge mission to regain credibility among the European elite, having been humiliated domestically for match fixing.
Buffon inspired Italy to an unlikely Euro 2012 final appearance, and there is no doubt that he will be able to drive the Bianconneri to a third continental crown come May some 16 years since their last triumph in the competition.
At 34, Buffon is by no means old for a goalkeeper, but having played at such a consistently high level for so long, the body may get weary soon and while Andrea Pirlo is still around, Buffon must do whatever he can to finally get his hands on that elusive trophy, as the most decorated and acclaimed player on this list.
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