The Greatest Champions League Comebacks

The Champions League final is fast approaching and the highlight of the European club footballing calendar will surely produce more than its fair share of drama. We’ve seen some amazing comebacks in the history of this competition – in the groups, the knockout stages and in the final itself but can the two finalists produce excitement to beat these matches?

1. 2004/05 Final: Liverpool 3 AC Milan 3 – Liverpool won 3-2 on penalties

Liverpool had enjoyed a rich history in the old European Cup but back in 2005, manager Rafa Benitez had taken them to their first every Champions League final. The match was played in Istanbul but at half time that game seemed to be over. Milan had gone ahead in the very first minute with a Paolo Maldini volley and two follow up goals from Argentinian striker Hernan Crespo would surely have put the tie beyond Liverpool’s reach.

The engravers could have been forgiven for etching Milan’s name on the trophy but Benitez’s men reacted positively by making a tactical change. Dietmaar Hamann came on for Steve Finnan and the side switched to three at the back with a five man midfield. It was a risky, ‘last throw of the dice’ that could have left Liverpool badly exposed but within 11 minutes of the restart, the pressure was back on the Italians.

Captain Steven Gerrard and Vladimir Smicer scored within two minutes of each other and Milan were visibly shaken. Then, with an hour on the clock, Liverpool were awarded a penalty. The normally reliable Xabi Alonso stepped up but Dida saved his initial effort only for the Spaniard to follow up and level the scores at 3-3.

It was an unthinkable scoreline, given the one sided nature of the first half and while both teams had chances to win it in 90 minutes, the game went to extra time and then penalties. The drama was far from over as Milan squandered their first two spot kicks through Serginho and Andrea Pirlo. Liverpool went 2-0 ahead through Hamann and Djibril Cisse and when Andriy Shevchenko’s effort was saved by Jerzy Dudek, the English club had won the trophy in the most dramatic way possible.

2. 2003/04 Quarter Final: Deportivo La Coruna 5 AC Milan 4 on aggregate

2005’s final wasn’t the first time that Milan had thrown away a winning position, only to endure Champions League heartbreak. They won the trophy under Carlo Ancelotti in 2002/03 and after the summer signing of Brazilian Kaka, the Rossoneri were even stronger.

After breezing through the group stages, Milan were drawn against Spanish outfit Depor and the first leg of the tie went perfectly to script. The Italian club produced an emphatic 4-1 win and despite Deportivo claiming a useful away goal, the vast majority of pundits expected the contest to be over.

Milan travelled to Spain full of confidence but were they too complacent? Walter Pandiani put the Spaniards up after just five minutes and Depor were three goals in front at half time thanks to further strikes from Juan Carlos Valeron and an unstoppable effort from Albert Luque.

Milan just needed a goal in the second period to restore the balance of the match but it never came and instead, club captain Fran completed the scoring for the Spanish side to send them through 5-4 on aggregate.

This incredible game produced some memorable quotes: Milan skipper Paolo Maldini said, “Sometimes the other team has a perfect night.”
Meanwhile, Deportivo keeper Jose Molina added, while hinting at some perceived over confidence on the part of the Italians, “Sometimes in football you think you have everything. Then someone punches you in the face.”

3. 2011/12 Round of 16: Chelsea 5 Napoli 4 after extra time

Chelsea’s season began under Andre Villas-Boas and the Portuguese was in charge when his side went down 3-1 to Napoli in the first leg of this tie. AVB was allegedly involved in a power struggle with some of his senior players during his brief tenure and for the match in Naples, the manager attempted to underline his authority by dropping Frank Lampard and Ashley Cole to the subs’ bench.

At the time, both players were considered to be ‘un-droppable’ by the fans and their absence was largely blamed for the 3-1 home victory that ensued. It also spelt the end for Villas-Boas who was sacked by the club shortly afterwards and by the time Napoli returned to Stamford Bridge, Chelsea had a new line up and a new manager.

Former player Roberto Di Matteo took over managerial duties and was hoping that a vital away goal would help his side stay in the Champions League. After 48 minutes, Chelsea held the advantage when goals from Didier Drogba and John Terry gave them a 2-0 lead – a scoreline that would have seen them progress under the away goals rule.

Gokhan Inler pulled one back on the night but in a dramatic finale, Frank Lampard’s late penalty took the tie into extra time. In the final thirty minutes, an emphatic finish from Branislav Ivanovic was all that Chelsea needed to win the game and as the West London club drew inspiration from this amazing comeback, they would go on to lift the Champions League trophy that year, after another dramatic game against favourites Bayern Munich.

4. 1998/99 Semi Final: Manchester United 4 Juventus 3 on aggregate

Manchester United’s trophy winning team of 1999 had to come from behind to win an amazing final against Bayern Munich but this side were no strangers to dramatic comebacks. In the semi final against Juventus, Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad were staring at defeat before Roy Keane inspired his men to a memorable recovery and the narrowest of aggregate victories.

The scores were level at 1-1 after the first game at Old Trafford and as the tie switched to Turin, Juve were the obvious favourites to progress. That tag was seemingly confirmed when the Serie A giants raced into a 2-0 lead on the night with two goals inside the first 11 minutes from striker Pippo Inzaghi.

Keane then took control of the midfield and the skipper’s goal gave his side their first glimpse of any hope. Centre forward Dwight Yorke followed that up with a strike on 34 minutes and suddenly, from being the tie’s also-rans, United were ahead on away goals.

Juve responded in the second half and maintained strong pressure on their opponent’s goal but Peter Schmeichel and his defence held firm. United remained ahead but Andy Cole made sure with his team’s third of the night to send United through with an improbable, 4-3 scoreline.

As an ironic postscript to the game, Keane and his fellow midfielder Paul Scholes picked up yellow cards and were therefore ineligible to play in the final against Bayern. At the time, it was felt that their absence would only serve to hamper United’s chances in that contest…

5. 1998/99 Final Bayern Munich 1 Manchester United 2

It’s said that Manchester United legend and 1968 European Cup Winner George Best left before the end of this game with his side losing by one goal to nil. Best’s actions only mirrored that of many armchair fans who had switched off the TV with Alex Ferguson’s side trailing in what had largely been an even match.

Both teams were aiming for a historic domestic treble: Manchester United had won the English Premiership while Bayern had delivered the German equivalent of the Bundesliga and were preparing for the final of the DFB Pokal.

The absence of Roy Keane and Paul Scholes from the Manchester United midfield cemented Bayern Munich as pre-match favourites and everything was going to plan when Mario Basler put the Germans ahead on six minutes, directly from a free kick.

Ferguson’s men responded well but while they dominated possession for a period, the German defence stayed strong. United finished the first half as the better side but Bayern came out in more positive fashion in the second period with giant centre forward Carsten Jancker causing problems straight away.

The game developed into one of the best finals in years and it was end to end football with both teams having chances to add to the scoring. As the game ebbed away, Manchester United supporters sensed that perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be their day – a view that George Best clearly agreed with.

Injury time arrived and an unbelievable three minutes ensued. United won a corner and such was their desperation that goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel came up into the opposition penalty area. David Beckham floated the ball over his head and as the ball fell to Ryan Giggs on the edge of the box, his miss-hit shot was shovelled in by substitute Teddy Sheringham.

It seemed as if the English club had forced extra time but more drama was to follow: Within 30 seconds of the restart Manchester United won another corner. Naturally, Schmeichel stayed on his own line but within moments he was performing cartwheels as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer snatched the winning goal.

This time, Beckham’s ball in found Sheringham’s head and as he nodded it down, the Norwegian poked the ball into the roof of the net. The Germans had no time to respond and were devastated as the final whistle went. As for Manchester United, they had defied the odds in two successive matches to win at the end of one of the most memorable Champions League tournaments of all time.

6. 2003/04 Quarter Final: Monaco 5 Real Madrid 5 Aggregate Score. Monaco won on away goals.

Back in 2004, the term ‘Galacticos’ became known across the globe with Real Madrid fielding a squad packed with World Superstars. Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Raul and Brazilian striker Ronaldo were just four of the major players in a Real team that had won the Champions League in May 2002 and were seemingly on course for a guaranteed place in the semi finals two years later.

In 2003/04, Monaco weren’t the footballing superpower that we know today but they possessed a competent team who weren’t exactly outclassed when the Spanish giants took a 4-2 lead from their home leg.

It could have been even better after Sebastien Squillaci equalised Ivan Helguera’s opener, but as the French team began to tire, Real took advantage and three further goals from Zidane, Figo and Ronaldo would have surely ended the tie had it not been for a late strike from Fernando Morientes.

Spanish international striker Morientes had claimed what seemed to be little more than a consolation effort and the majority of Real supporters were already celebrating. However, that solitary goal was to prove crucial in the second leg.

Once again, everything seemed to be going to plan as the Spanish side extended their overall lead through a 36th minute goal from Raul. Monaco drew level on the night via Ludovic Giuly and Real finally started to panic when Morientes put his team ahead in the second leg after 48 minutes.

Real were suddenly under pressure and just one more strike would give the French the advantage thanks to the away goals rule. Almost inevitably, it came to complete the shock result as Captain Giuly scored his second of the game to give Monaco an unbelievable win.

But there was a true irony to this result: Morientes was actually on loan at Monaco after failing to break into the first team at Madrid.
“It wasn’t revenge, I had to play and beat friends. I am professional,” The striker said after the game.

The final of the 2013/14 Champions League promises to be an exciting affair but could it possibly deliver the same kind of drama that we saw in the six matches listed above? The winners would prefer a comfortable passage to the trophy, rather than having to come from a few goals down but all the neutral supporters will be hoping for a similarly memorable tie.

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