Is this the most special achievement in football?
Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jupp Heynckes. All have achieved the elusive, the incredibly problematic, the near-on-impossible: winning a Champions League treble.
Emphasis must be laid on ‘Champions League’, because a distant cohort of other top managers have won ‘trebles’ in Europe too (Gerard Houllier at Liverpool, Andre Villas-Boas at Porto) but neither have included their club’s domestic premiership and the Champions League.
Last week, it seemed like Mauricio Pochettino was reminding us all just how difficult it is to successfully compete in three different competitions for an entire season and somehow come up trumps. Liverpool and West Ham held them up in the league, a meagre trip to Florence saw all of their Thursday night endeavours laid to waste and Diego Costa polished off Chelsea’s victory at Wembley in the Capital One Cup final.
In the space of one week Spurs went from being a multi-challenging European hotshot to a beaten and bruised sleepwalker, with all of the optimism surrounding their season extracted from them in an instant.
Spurs might have looked good but their situation was hardly as bad as some of their European counterparts in the past. That infamous example that you can’t help but wince at is Klaus Topmollers 2001/2002 Bayer ‘Neverkuson’, which lost the Bundesliga on the final day, fell short against Schalke in the German cup final, and stood still in the Champions League when Zinidine Zidane scored that goal.
Leverkuson’s deterioration was a failing multi-competition challenge at it’s most brutal, but helps illustrate how difficult it is to remain consistent throughout an entire season at every stage of a differing varying competitions. Ferguson perhaps deserves the most credit for his 1999 United team’s exploits because it was entirely revolutionary at the time- squad rotation was not a practiced art and United had an outrageous run of tricky fixtures to their respective finals.
These achievements, clearly, also all involve large degrees of fortune. Not withstanding United’s incredible turnaround in the Champions League final, Denis Bergkamp should have seen Arsenal through against United in the FA Cup Semi’s. As Didier Drogba would infamously rage, Barcelona never should have got past Chelsea in the Champions League semi final in 2009. Inter came through a freakish clash against Barca at the same stage of the Champions League the following year, off the back of Barca getting an impeding coach to Italy for the corresponding leg due to volcanic ash. Heynckes’ Bayern team perhaps pulled off this feat with the most panache, but even they nearly threw the initiative away to Arsenal in the last 16 when they lost two nil at home and narrowly traipsed through on goal difference.
It’s easy to forget, in a very plain and basic manner, that only one team can win each trophy each season, and that to have one outfit dominate throughout an entire year makes for a special squad of players. There’s also the frequently understated point on the luck of a fixture list, playing teams at the right time in the right place. Get a tough run of league fixtures in April off the back of an away midweek European trip with a couple of key injuries and you’re sure to fall away.
With the same band of European teams now dominating Europe every year perhaps the achievement will lose it’s significance in the future. Celtic, Ajax and PSV were the only teams to manage it before the concept of the Champions League came to light in 1992, but since then four teams have managed it, a reflection of the dominance in modern European football.
Either way, with English teams having a minor hiccup in Europe at the moment, Italian teams struggling outright, and Barca and Real always contesting everything domestically, perhaps the near future treble winners will be one of PSG or Bayern Munich. Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho will both also be vying to become the first individuals in history to carry out this incredible feat twice. Perhaps, only an achievement of that magnitude will define which of the two of them is the greatest.