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Minnows vs Big Boys: the tiny teams who took on the giants

SpVgg Unterhaching vs Bayer Leverkusen (Bundesliga, 1999/00)

Before the 1999/00 campaign, experts agreed that if one team couldn't stand a chance in Germany’s top flight, it would be SpVgg Unterhaching, from a Bavarian municipality with a population of 23,000 – smaller than the capacity of Dortmund's home end.

However, the prime relegation candidates finished the season in 10th and would even decide the destiny of the title. On May 20, 2000, they hosted Bayer Leverkusen, who only needed a draw to win their first-ever Bundesliga. Ten miles away, at Munich's Olympiastadion, Bayern Munich could hardly believe their luck when Unterhaching beat Leverkusen 2-0, enabling the Roten to gain the title yet again.

Nowadays, Haching play in the third league and are something of a holding pen for world champions' siblings with players like Jonas Hummels, Fabian Götze and – until 2010 – Tobias Schweinsteiger.

CF Extremadura vs Real Madrid (Primera División, 1996/97)

CF Extremadura's great moment came by default. Castilla had qualified for the Segunda Division play-offs, but as Real Madrid's reserve side they were ineligible for promotion; instead, the minnows from the province of Badajoz stepped up, beat Albacete Balompié 2-0 on aggregate and took their first-ever place in the top flight. Having lost their first seven games, they wisely restricted themselves to defending.

It worked to an extent, even against elite clubs: at Estadio Franscisco de la Hera on January 12, 1997, the mighty Blancos were held to a goalless draw. Even so, Extremadura were relegated; they bounced straight back, but were promptly relegated – this time, forever. They drifted down the divisions and in 2010, financially troubled, they were dissolved.

FC Basel vs FC Vaduz (Swiss Super League, 2014/15)

FC Vaduz represent one of the more curious cases within European football (see FFT 249). Despite being based in Liechtenstein, their domination of the Liechtenstein Cup (having won it 42 times) led to their acceptance into nearby Switzerland’s Super League.

Having had an initial spell in the Swiss Super League in the 2008/09 season, in which they were relegated, FC Vaduz returned this season following their promotion from the second-tier Swiss Challenge League. FC Vaduz play their home games at the home of the Liechtenstein national team, Rheinpark Stadion, which holds almost 8,000 spectators.

In comparison to Switzerland’s most successful club, FC Basel, who have 17 Swiss titles to their name, FC Vaduz’s current seventh-place standing is respectable considering their constraints.

Throughout their two spells in the Super League, FC Vaduz have ended up on the losing side on each of the seven times they have met Basel, only managing to score once. However, they do boast a UEFA Cup victory over the Swiss outfit, coming in 2006, even if they subsequently went out on away goals.

Juventus vs AlbinoLeffe (Serie B, 2006/07)

Following their relegation to Serie B as a result of their infamous match-fixing scandal, Italian giants Juventus found themselves up against considerably more obscure opposition than they had been used to facing.

In the event, the Old Lady stormed to the Serie B title having kept a large number of their stars, yet minnows AlbinoLeffe proved themselves more than tricky opponents for the likes of Gianluigi Buffon and Alessandro Del Piero as they twice held their stellar opponents to a 1-1 draw.

AlbinoLeffe (they're based in the Lombardy town of Leffe, but they also represent nearby Albino) comfortably survived in Serie B that season, but it was something of a high-water mark: they now find themselves languishing third bottom in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione/A.

SBV Excelsior vs Ajax (Eredivisie, 2007/08)

The smallest stadium of the Eredivisie is the home of SBV Excelsior. Located in Rotterdam, the Stadion Woudestein has room for 3,531 people and one of its stands is named after Robin van Persie, who started his career with Excelsior’s youth setup in 1997. A day before Christmas in 2007, however, Ajax had to experience that even the smallest ground can become a secure stronghold.

Goals from Mitchell Piqué and Geert den Ouden gave the hosts a surprising 2-0 lead before Hedwiges Maduro pulled one back for Ajax. The visitors fought fiercely for a comeback, creating chance after chance, but Excelsior defended the narrow lead and gave Huntelaar & Co. an unpleasant Christmas surprise.  

Al-Hilal vs Al-Hazm (Saudi Pro League, 2010/11)

Having wrapped up 13 Saudi Professional League titles and two Asian Champions Leagues, Al-Hilal are considered one of Asia's biggest clubs. Indeed, their size and dominance have tempted the likes of Sweden's Christian Wilhelmsson. Georgios Samaras is there as we speak.

Al-Hilal’s home, the King Fahd Stadium, can seat nearly 70,000 people, so when rock-bottom Al-Hazm rocked up there seemed little chance of an upset: earlier in the season, Al-Hilal had visited Al-Hazm’s tiny ground and won 2-0. Inevitably, Al-Hilal walked to a 3-0 victory in the return game.

Indeed, Al-Hilal won the title with ease, without a single defeat to their name. On the other hand, poor Al-Hazm were relegated, registering only one win and six points from 26 games, conceding 70 goals in the process. Not everything in football is a fairy tale. 

FCO Charleville vs Marseille (Ligue 2, 1994/95)

If you have a locker at the Stade Vélodrome – France’s biggest club stadium – you probably won’t get a kick from smaller grounds in Auzerre, Cannes or Sochaux. However, after Marseille's enforced relegation following a bribery affair, their players had to adjust their expectations.

On February 15, 1995, aiming to regain their position among the elite, Marseille travelled to the Stade Municipal du Petit Bois expecting to beat FCO Charleville. But less than two years after being crowned champions of Europe with a team including Fabien Barthez, Basile Boli, Marcel Desailly, Didier Deschamps, Alen Boksic, Abedi Pele and Rudi Voller, l'OM were defeated 1-0 by their minnow opponents.

Today, Charleville play in the sixth tier, but nobody can take away their two main claims to fame: a 1936 French Cup Final appearance (captained by future catenaccio king Helenio Herrera), and this glorious win.

Dinamo Tbilisi vs FC Zugdidi (Umaglesi Liga, 2014/15)

In Georgia, Dinamo Tbilisi are the team to beat: 15-time champions, they play at the 55,000-capacity national stadium, the Boris Paichadze Dinamo Arena (where they play to near-empty crowds of around 1,000).

In comparison, FC Zugdidi’s home holds around 2,000 people (where about 200 fans rock up), arguably unfitting of a top league side.

However, despite having the smallest stadium in Georgia's Umaglesi Liga, Zugdidi have comfortably held their top-league status since their promotion at the end of the 2006/2007 season. And though Dinamo Tblisi are currently top, tiny Zugdidi are still in there... albeit third from bottom.

Some heavy defeats have been interrupted with the odd victory for the minnows, though – most recently a 2-1 victory in October 2011, courtesy of a 90th-minute winner.  

Carlisle United vs Arsenal (First Division, 1974/75)

Having won the League and FA Cup double in 1971, Arsenal appeared to be the ascending force in English football for the following decade: they were runners-up in the 1972 FA Cup and 1973 First Division. However, the Gunners' 1974/75 season didn't go as planned: they finished 16th and suffered 18 defeats.

Arguably the worst was the loss at Carlisle, on December 7, 1974. The Cumbrian outpost had one of the smallest populations ever to produce a top-flight English outfit; the club had spent all but the last decade in the lower league. For their part, Arsenal had recovered from two winless autumn months – a run that took them to the bottom of the league – by putting together four wins in six, taking them above Carlisle. But United sent the southern sophisticates slinking away with a 2-1 defeat.

Benfica vs Trofense (Primeira Liga, 2008/09)

Despite suffering relegation in their only season in the Primeira Liga, Trofense caused Portuguese super-club Benfica more than a few problems in their two league meetings.

Having beaten O Glorioso 2-0 in front of 5,000 fans at their modest stadium, Trofense also managed to hold out for a 2-2 draw at the Estadio da Luz.

Benfica’s dropped points proved costly as they could only limp to a third-placed finish, although this blow was softened somewhat with their Portuguese League Cup victory over Sporting Lisbon.

Despite finishing the season with only five wins and 23 points to their name, Trofense also managed to hold FC Porto to a 0-0 draw at the Estadio do Dragao. They can currently be found sitting bottom of the Segunda Liga seven points from safety.

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