Lesser lights revel in 'stuff of fantasy'

Unlikely is not the word. At the start of this season's Champions' League, a final between Monaco and Porto was more unthinkable than Elvis Presley being found alive or someone producing proof of intelligent alien life before the end of the season. So say William Hill, who would have given you odds of 1000-1 against either of the latter scenarios last summer.

"Monaco were 80-1 to win the Champions' League last July and Porto were 50-1," said Graham Sharpe, the bookmaker's spokesman. "The chances of them meeting in the final seemed so remote that nobody asked for a quote. If we'd given one, it would have been 1000-1 at least."

The scepticism over the durability of Didier Deschamps' and Jose Mourinho's teams was rooted in historical precedent. Since the inception of the European Cup in 1955-56, it has been dominated by clubs from the "big four" nations of Italy, Spain, England and Germany.

They have won 35 of the 48 finals between them and provided 66 of the 96 finalists. Twenty-three of the 48 finals, including all of the last seven, have been between clubs from those countries. Another 21 finals have featured at least one club from a "big four" nation.

Only four finals before this year have ever had no "big four" representation, the last being in 1991 between Red Star Belgrade and Marseille. The other "outsiders' finals" were PSV against Benfica (1988), Ajax against Panathinaikos (1971) and Feyenoord against Celtic (1970).

With Real Madrid, Milan and Arsenal exiting in the quarter-finals this season, only Deportivo and Chelsea were left to represent the "big four" nations. They were favourites against Portugal's Porto and France's Monaco respectively - and lost.

As L'Equipe said yesterday: "To imagine a French presence in the final was the stuff of sweet fantasy." Or as Monaco's Shabani Nonda said before Wednesday's win: "Monaco winning the Champions' League? It only happens on PlayStation."

BREAKING TRADITION UNDERDOG FINALS

The four previous European Cup finals with no "big four" representation:

1991: R S Belgrade v Marseille

Red Star beat the likes of Rangers (2R) and Bayern Munich (SF) to meet Marseille, who had beaten Milan (QF) and Spartak Moscow (SF). Red Star won 5-3 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

1988: PSV Eindhoven v Benfica

PSV eliminated Real Madrid in the semi-finals to progress to face Benfica, who had beaten the 1986 winners, Steaua Bucharest, in the semi-finals. PSV won 6-5 on penalties after a 0-0 draw.

1971: Ajax v Panathinaikos

It was not so surprising to see Ajax, conquerors of Celtic (QF) and Atletico Madrid (SF), in the final, but Panathinaikos shocked Everton (QF) and Red Star (SF) to progress. Ajax won 2-0.

1970: Feyenoord v Celtic

Feyenoord shocked Milan (2R) and beat Legia Warsaw (SF) to meet the 1967 winners Celtic, who had beaten the likes of Benfica (2R), Fiorentina (QF) and Leeds (SF). Feyenoord won 2-1 aet.

* Number of European Cup finals with both teams from "big four" nations of Italy, Spain, England and Germany: 23

* Number of finals featuring at least one team from "big four" nations: 21

* Number of previous finals featuring no teams from "big four" nations: 4

EUROPEAN CUP PEDIGREE BY COUNTRY 1956-2003

Nation Winners Runners-up Total

Italy 10 13 23

Spain 10 9 19

England 9 2 11

Germany 6 7 13

Netherlands 6 2 8

Portugal 3 5 8

France 1 4 5

Romania 1 1 2

Scotland 1 1 2

Yugoslavia 1 1 2

Belgium 0 1 1

Greece 0 1 1

Sweden 0 1 1

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