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The 7 most unlikely Champions League semi-finalists ever

Leeds Valencia 2001

Every once in a while, a team defies the odds or a decidedly easy draw to reach the latter stages of the Champions League. Jack Beresford revisits the very best – and worst...

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1. Rangers, 1992/93

The inaugural Champions League season didn’t have a semi-final stage, but Rangers still came within 180 minutes of reaching the showpiece final. Buoyed by the goals of Ally McCoist and Mark Hateley, the Gers had already seen off Leeds in the first round, triumphing 4-2 in the “Battle of Britain”.

Drawn in a group with Marseille, CSKA Moscow and Club Brugge, Walter Smith’s side remained unbeaten throughout the group phase and went into their penultimate game against Marseille and CSKA knowing that two wins would get them to the final.

But despite a battling 1-1 draw at the Stade Velodrome, a draw against CSKA at Ibrox – coupled with an unlikely win for Marseille over Club Brugge – meant the Scots narrowly missed out.

2. Panathinaikos, 1995/96

Panathinaikos achieved God-like status in Greece after overcoming defeat to lowly Aalborg, topping their group ahead of Nantes and Porto. Powered on by the goals of all-time top scorer Krzysztof Warzycha (catchy!), the Greek club then cruised past Legia Warsaw to set up a semi-final meeting with Ajax – the side that had beaten them in the 1971 European Cup Final.

Warzycha had Panathinaikos dreaming of another final appearance by scoring in a 1-0 first-leg win in Amsterdam that ended Ajax’s 22-game unbeaten run in the competition. The second leg in Athens was more Greek tragedy than triumph, however, with Jari Litmanen scoring twice in a 3-0 win for Ajax.

3. Dynamo Kiev, 1998/99

Coming in the years before Europe’s elite clubs began sucking up young talent with wild abandon, Valeriy Lobanovskiy’s Dynamo Kiev side was a blend of experienced heads and exciting young stars.

The likes of Kakha Kaladze, Oleg Luzhny, Sergei Rebrov and, most notably, Andriy Shevchenko starred as part of a Dynamo side that put Arsenal and Real Madrid to the sword en route to a semi-final showdown with Bayern.

Shevchenko scored 10 Champions League goals that season and got the Ukrainians off to a blinder against Bayern, scoring twice to put Dynamo 3-1 ahead in the Kiev first leg. But the German side fought back, scoring twice in the final 12 minutes to earn a 3-3 draw. Dynamo's Golden Generation bowed out in Bavaria, going down 1-0 in Munich to a Mario Basler goal.

4. Leeds United, 2000/01

Leeds’s only Champions League campaign was an eventful one. Amid the competition’s exhausting two group stage format, David O’Leary’s young squad qualified from the first at the expense of Barcelona, before pipping Lazio to the post in the second.

That set up a quarter-final with La Liga champions Deportivo La Coruna and a magical night at Elland Road, where goals from Ian Harte, Alan Smith and Rio Ferdinand gave Leeds a 3-0 first-leg lead which proved insurmountable for Depor, despite a 2-0 win at the Riazor.

But despite drawing 0-0 at home against Valencia in the semis, the might of Gaizka Mendieta et al proved too much at Mestalla, with Los Che running out 3-0 winners.

5. Villarreal, 2005/06

Villarreal emerged from nowhere to reach the last four in 2006, helped by the masterful organisation of manager Manuel Pellegrini and sizeable talents of playmaker Juan Roman Riquelme.

The Yellow Submarine sank Everton in the third round of qualifying before torpedoing Manchester United, Rangers and an Inter Milan side featuring Adriano in his pomp.

Arsenal awaited in the semi-finals. Though Villarreal went down 1-0 at Highbury in the first leg, a last-minute penalty in the return match gave the Spaniards their chance of extra time. Riquelme stepped up, only to see his spot-kick saved by Jens Lehmann in front of a devastated El Madrigal.

6. Lyon, 2009/10

Lyon dominated Ligue 1 for much of the early noughties. By 2009, however, their stranglehold had been loosened by the emergence of title winners Bordeaux. Les Gones were forced to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in nine years but thrived in their new underdog status, advancing to the group stage where they upset Liverpool to reach the knockout phase.

Lyon made waves in the last 16 by eliminating Real Madrid 2-1 on aggregate, inspired by the emerging Miralem Pjanic, who scored their crucial goal at the Bernabeu. They followed that up with a 3-2 aggregate win over Bordeaux, exacting sweet revenge in the process.

But the joy was short-lived: Bayern Munich battered the Ligue 1 side 4-0 on aggregate in the semis.

7. Schalke, 2010/11

Eyebrows were raised when Raul signed for Schalke in the summer of 2010. But the Spaniard was determined to enjoy the Champions League swansong Real Madrid had denied him, and saw the Gelsenkirchen club as the perfect opportunity to retain it.

Schalke already boasted a talented squad including Manuel Neuer, Julian Draxler and Ivan Rakitic, but Raul proved his own class in the knockout phase. He netted decisive goals against Valencia and Inter Milan, including home and away against the latter.

But despite Neuer’s best efforts, Schalke were outclassed by Manchester United in the semi-finals and were hammered 6-1 on aggregate. Raul retired a year later having earned legendary status among Royal Blue fans.

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