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The 15 most miraculous Champions League group stage escapes

Thierry Henry
(Image credit: Getty)

There's always a big gun that struggles. That's the nature of a "group of death" - but sometimes not even that is an excuse.

Plenty of teams make the group stages - you know, the easy bit - look difficult. While it's possible to qualify for the next round with two games to spare, there are some that leave it to the last minute.

1. Newcastle 2002/03

Bobby Robson’s Newcastle were flying high in the Premier League but had struggled to mix it with Europe's best, losing their first three group games to Dynamo Kiev, Feyenoord and Juventus without even scoring.

But the Magpies didn't give up. Against a Juve side including Edgar Davids and Alessandro Del Piero at St James’ Park, one moment was enough for Newcastle to kick-start their campaign.

Andy Griffin rushed onto a quickly taken free-kick and skipped past a challenge, before seeing his cross-cum-shot inadvertently turned home by Gianluigi Buffon. Robson's men managed to pull off victories over Dynamo Kiev and Feyenoord, coming from behind in Ukraine before storming through against the latter via Craig Bellamy's last-minute winner. 

With that, they became the first side to lose their first three games and qualify for the knockouts.

2. Arsenal 2003/04

Despite becoming the ‘Invincibles’ in the Premier League, the Gunners were far from impenetrable in Europe that season, losing two of their first three group games – including a 3-0 hiding from Inter at Highbury.

But after Ashley Cole snatched a crucial 88th-minute winner in their fourth game against Dynamo Kiev, Arsenal went on to annihilate Inter 5-1 at San Siro in arguably their most formidable European display, led by the brilliance of two-goal Thierry Henry.

Arsene Wenger’s men managed to hold their nerve and clinched a 2-0 home win over Lokomotiv Moscow to progress on 10 points as group winners, demonstrating the steely character that proved the bedrock of that great Gunners side.

3. Lokomotiv Moscow 2003/04

Qualifying alongside Arsenal in second place were the Russians, who had defied the odds to oust Inter Milan and Dynamo Kiev. After amassing just a single point from their first two fixtures – a goalless home draw against Arsenal – Lokomotiv were rock bottom of Group B, exactly where most people thought they'd stay.

But they were determined to leave with more than just pride. The capital outfit took four points off Inter, including a 3-0 hammering of the Italian giants at home, and claimed a 3-2 win over Dynamo Kiev in the penultimate game to finish above Inter and hang on for a place in the last 16. 

4. Porto 2003/04

Nobody fancied then-UEFA Cup champions Porto going into the Champions League that year, but a young Jose Mourinho was determined to announce himself in style. But before he sprinted down the touchline at Old Trafford, the Portuguese prince masterminded a great escape in Group F.

After a 3-1 home defeat to Real Madrid left them on one point from two games, Porto stormed through the final four with 10 points from a possible 12. They collected wins over Didier Drogba's Marseille and then Partizan Belgrade, before drawing with Madrid at home. The Portuguese giant climbed out of the group unscathed before kick-starting their stunning tilt at European domination.

5. Liverpool 2004/05

After losing their penultimate fixture to Monaco 1-0, Liverpool needed to beat Olympiakos by two clear goals to qualify. But Rafa Benitez’s men didn't make things easy for themselves and went behind to a Rivaldo free-kick midway through the first half.

It teed up one of football's most dramatic comebacks (no, not that one). The Reds netted within two minutes of the restart via Florent Sinama-Pongolle, before Neil Mellor made things interesting in the 81st minute. Then, in the dying embers, Gerrard pounced on Mellor’s cushioned header before drilling a superb volley into the corner from 25 yards to send Liverpool through and Sky's Andy Gray potty.

6. Werder Bremen 2005/06

After collecting just four points from five games, Bremen were in need of a minor miracle going into their final game against Panathinaikos. Level on points with the Greeks and needing victory themselves, Barcelona to beat Udinese and a four-goal swing overturning, the odds were stacked firmly against Thomas Schaaf's side.

But the Bundesliga club produced a thrilling finale to their group stage adventure by smashing Panathinaikos 5-1. It looked as though their five-star display would be in vain, though, until their Catalan friends produced a late show of their own, scoring twice in the last five minutes to knock Udinese out. Cruel.

7. Olympiakos 2007/08

Despite being the fifth-lowest-ranked team in the competition that year, Olympiakos managed to survive a group that also contained Real Madrid, Werder Bremen and Lazio. Takis Lemonis’s men were unanimously predicted to finish rock bottom but played out of their skins to become the season’s surprise package.

Claiming a double over Werder Bremen and goalless draw against Madrid at the Karaiskakis Stadium, the Greeks stormed through to qualify behind the Spaniards – five points clear of Bremen.

8. Liverpool 2007/08

Finding themselves in another dire situation, the 2005 champions needed to summon their powers of recovery once again to scrape through the group stage, after collecting just one point from three games against Marseille, Porto and Besiktas. 

Thankfully for the Reds they eventually got going, smashing a record-breaking eight goals past Besiktas at Anfield before thumping Porto 4-1. Level with the Portuguese side going into the final match, Liverpool faced the unenviable task of becoming the first English side to win at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille – but a convincing and clinical performance gave them a memorable 4-0 victory and passage through to the knockout phase.

9. Bayern Munich 2009/10

The German heavyweights had been less-than-impressive in Europe after winning just four points from as many games, including back-to-back defeats against Bordeaux. Louis van Gaal's job was under intense scrutiny, and the Dutchman needed big results fast. Four points behind Juventus in third place, Bayern had to win their final two games while hoping other results went their way.

Yet incredibly they managed both, after a 1-0 home win over Maccabi Haifa and 4-1 crushing of Juve in Turin left them with 10 points and qualification ahead of the Bianconeri. With spirits high after their unlikely escape, Bayern went all the way to the final before losing out to Jose Mourinho’s Inter at the final hurdle. 

10. Celtic 2012/13

Neil Lennon’s men forged a reputation for punching above their weight in Europe, and their excellent display of courage and resilience in this campaign showed exactly why. After a decent start, with four points from their first three matches, Lennon's men hosted Barcelona at Celtic Park after losing 2-1 in the Camp Nou.

Despite seeing just 16.4% of the ball, the Scots went ahead through Victor Wanyama before sealing victory late via youngster Tony Watt. Lionel Messi's injury-time effort was a mere consolation; Celtic won with the lowest recorded possession figure since Opta began collecting the data in 2006/07.

The Bhoys lost at Benfica in their penultimate game, leaving them third on goal difference, but grafted to a 2-1 win over Lokomotiv Moscow in their final match thanks to Kris Commons' 81st-minute spot-kick.

11. Man City 2014/15

Having fallen at the group stage in two of their three Champions League campaigns to date, there was an ominous sense of history repeating itself in 2014 after Manchester City failed to win any of their first four group games, including a particularly galling defeat at home to CSKA Moscow. Bottom of the group and two points behind CSKA and Roma, they still had Pep Guardiola's Bayern Munich to come again.

When they trailed the German giants 2-1 at home with five minutes left, City fans could have been forgiven for resigning themselves to another season of failure. But Sergio Aguero, and all that. Having netted City's first goal from the spot, the brilliant Argentine equalised on 85 minutes and then capitalised on a rare blunder from former Citizen Jerome Boateng to poke in a dramatic 91st-minute winner.

Roma and CSKA's draw that same night still had the Italians ahead of City on goal difference going into their final game in Rome. There, after a nervy hour, Samir Nasri and Pablo Zabaleta both struck in a 2-0 win to see Manuel Pellegrini's men safely through. Phew. 

12. Arsenal 2015/16

Group F should have been straightforward for Arsenal: sure, they had Bayern Munich for company, but Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos should have made for comfortable cannon fodder and safe progression to the knockouts.

Not so. After the Gunners were humbled 2-1 in Zagreb – the Croatians' first Champions League win since September 1999 – they were beaten 3-2 at Olympiakos despite twice coming from behind. A shock 2-0 win over Bayern at the Emirates Stadium looked to have got things back on track, but Arsene Wenger's side were thrashed 5-1 in the reverse fixture. 

After four games they had three points; the same as Dinamo Zagreb, and six fewer than Olympiakos with only two games to go. But then came the fightback: Arsenal whipped Dinamo Zagreb 3-0 on Matchday Five while Bayern stuck four past Olympiakos, setting up a do-or-die final game against the Greek side in Piraeus. But they needn't have worried: Olivier Giroud's hat-trick sealed a memorable win and safe passage to a last-16 tonking from Barcelona.  

13. Tottenham Hotspur 2018/19

Tottenham

(Image credit: Getty)

Tottenham Hotspur advertised their new stadium in 2018 as the only place to watch Champions League football in London: a cheeky dig at rivals Arsenal and Chelsea both playing in the Europa League that season. It almost bit Spurs in the behind when they looked like crashing out of the competition before their delayed new ground had got to host a match.

Defeat away to Inter and a Messi-inspired Barcelona seemed vaguely predictable, but when Luuk De Jong fired an equaliser for PSV in Eindhoven, it looked like Tottenham might not even get to play in the same competition as their city rivals. 

Huge wins over Inter and PSV at Wembley followed before a mammoth performance from Mauricio Pochettino's side in the Camp Nou secured one last point to put them into the next round. 

14. Atalanta 2019/20

Kyle Walker

(Image credit: Getty)

Atalanta didn't win any of their first four group games in the 2019/20 Champions League. How they managed to qualify for the next round at the expense of Dinamo Zagreb and Shakhtar Donetsk was nothing short of baffling - and they'd even give Paris Saint-Germain a run for their money later on in the competition.

La Dea were spanked 4-0 in Zagreb and 5-1 at the Etihad Stadium, either side of conceding a last-minute winner to Shakhtar's Manor Solomon at home (well, Milan). Half-time in the group stage saw them rooted to the bottom - and they were heading out, too, when Raheem Sterling put Manchester City 1-0 up against them in the fourth game. 

Somehow though, they managed to equalise and cling onto a point against a City side that were reduced to 10 men when Claudio Bravo was sent off. Kyle Walker was sent between the sticks for the away side and City couldn't really threaten for the rest of the match.

That draw was a base to build on as Atalanta squeezed out of the group with two more wins, to batter Valencia 8-4 on aggregate in the next round. 

15. RB Leipzig 2020/21

RB Leipzig

(Image credit: Getty)

Manchester United fans are still wondering how they let this one slip through their hands. 

RB Leipzig qualified for the knockout stages in 2020/21 with four wins and two losses but that doesn't quite do justice to how close this group was and how down and out at one point in the contest. Leipzig beat Istanbul Basaksehir to open their account but were duly battered 5-0 in Manchester. They then beat PSG 2-1 at home - only to be beaten by the French side 1-0 away. 

The Basaksehir reverse fixture was a rollercoaster, in which Leipzig - who were winning 3-1 - shipped two goals, while over at Old Trafford, PSG dealt their revenge to United. It was in the dying moments that Alexander Sorloth gave them the winner, before they suffered a similarly stressful climax to the group at home to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side.

Leipzig went 3-0 up, only to concede two in the last 10 minutes, as Germans held their breath around the stadium. At one point in the group, both United and PSG looked shoo-ins for qualification - but Julian Nagelsmann's team sure did tear the script up in dramatic fashion.

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