Ranked! The 20 greatest European comebacks EVER
On-loan heroes, embarrassing complacency, Stasi-angering capitulation... and the match that literally changed football
What's the greatest comeback in the history of European football?
With so many to choose from across the Cup Winners' Cup, Champions League, European Cup, Europa League and UEFA Cup, FFT ranks the best Lazarus acts recorded on the continent
This feature originally appeared in Issue 336 of FourFourTwo. Subscribe now (opens in new tab) to never miss a mag!
20. Barcelona 5-1 Chelsea AET (6-4 agg)
Champions League, quarter-final second leg, 1999/2000
Chelsea were going places even before the Roman Empire dawned. Having won the FA Cup, League Cup and – unsurprisingly – Cup Winners’ Cup, the Blues had secured another (winning) Wembley final against Aston Villa by the time they breezed into the Champions League semis... or not.
The quarter-final clash was a classic game of four halves. Gianluca Vialli’s charges were 3-0 up at half-time in London, but Luis Figo gave Barcelona something to chase at the Camp Nou. There, they scored twice to lead on away goals at the interval, before Tore Andre Flo’s goal forced extra time. The hosts prevailed after Celestine Babayaro saw red.
If only the referee, Anders Frisk, had never done this fixture again. Five years later he’d retire after red-carding Didier Drogba during a last 16 match and receiving death threats.
19. Partizan 4-0 QPR (6-6 agg)
UEFA CUP, second-round second leg, 1984/85
In European knockouts of yore, many an underdog won at home before succumbing away. Even so, triumphing 6-2 at Highbury (Loftus Road’s plastic pitch offended UEFA) gave Belgrade-bound QPR more than a little confidence. Briefly.
“We were beaten before the game started,” sighed boss Alan Mullery. “I saw the players’ faces change when we walked out to sample the atmosphere. It scared the life out of me.”
Wanting a two-goal cushion “to take the sting out of the tie”, Mullery discovered even four wasn’t enough against a bombardment from Partizan and their passionate fanbase. After Zvonko Zivkovic – playing just five days after finishing a year of national service – made it 4-0, QPR had half an hour to score. They didn’t.
18. Red Bull Salzberg 4-1 Lazio (6-5 agg)
Europa League, quarter-final second leg, 2017/18
Energy drinks can have different effects on one’s constitution. Perhaps that’s why one April evening witnessed RB Leipzig wasting a two-goal advantage in their Europa League quarter-final while Salzburg, fellow cattle in Red Bull’s stable, roared back in theirs.
True, Salzburg benefitted from a couple of deflections and lax Lazio defending, but they were relentless. Using Munas Dabbur’s strike as fuel for a monster recovery, they notched three further goals in a full-throttle spell of four minutes and seven seconds. Naturally, they crashed soon afterwards.
17. Werder Bremen 5-3 Anderlecht
Champions League, Group Stage, 1993/94
‘Wonder at the Weser’ refers to a number of Werder comebacks on that river’s banks. They’d overcome a three-goal deficit before (Spartak Moscow 1987 and Dynamo Berlin ’88), and would again (Lyon ’99); here, they trailed 3-0 as late as the 66th minute.
This was a very good Anderlecht side too, featuring John Bosman, Philippe Albert (who scored), Danny Boffin (who scored twice, one a dipping, curling beaut) and goalkeeper Filip De Wilde, whose positioning this night was, admittedly, ‘interesting’.
Managed by title-winning Otto Rehhagel, later of Greece 2004 fame, Werder stunned Anderlecht with five goals bookended by New Zealand icon Wynton Rufer, rewarding the noisy home support – in pouring rain and such bitter cold that referee Ion Craciunescu kept rubbing his hands together, the poor Werder fans had to light flares for warmth.
16. Monaco 3-1 Real Madrid (5-5 agg)
Champions League, quarter-final second leg, 2003/04
“I had to leave Madrid to be happy. I’ve come to Monaco with humility. Most here haven’t played in the Champions League before, so I thought I’d help.”
Oh, Fernando Morientes helped. Monaco reached the Champions League final with their loanee top-scoring and haunting Real Madrid personally. His late Bernabeu effort seemed a consolation at 4-2 (David Beckham, carelessly banned for the second leg, said Real had “one foot in the semis”), especially when it became 5-2 at Stade Louis II after a sumptuous move involving Messrs Zidane, Ronaldo, Guti and Raul.
But once Ludovic Giuly pulled one back, it was end to end. Morientes struck again; so did Giuly, with a divine backheel; then Raul scored when he was offside and squandered when he wasn’t. Game over. Los Blancos had paid their own executioner.
15. Juventus 2-3 Manchester United (3-4 agg)
Champions League, semi-final second leg, 1998/99
Call it fate or fortune, fluke or fighting spirit, but Manchester United squeaked their way to the Treble. They were only England’s second non-champions in the Champions League, then failed to win their group and trailed for 85 minutes in the Camp Nou showpiece. In between, this happened.
Hindsight has consecrated Roy Keane’s performance: notwithstanding his incessant barking and excellent header at 2-0 down, he was outmanoeuvred in midfield, and one poor touch led to a late tackle and booking that meant he’d have to sit out the final against Bayern Munich. Yet Alex Ferguson didn’t need to ‘have a word with him’ that night in Turin – the Irishman’s winning aura inspired the Red Devils to a historic maiden victory on Italian soil.
14. Leverkusen 3-0 Espanyol (3-3 agg, 3-2 pens)
UEFA Cup, final second leg, 1987/88
Two-legged finals were one of the game’s greatest mistakes, alongside Silver Goal and Richard Keys. They did, however, provide this cracking fightback in Germany.
Leverkusen approached the hour mark at their Ulrich-Haberland-Stadion goalless, still 3-0 behind on aggregate. Dull. But then Tita scrambled the ball over the line, grabbed it and sprinted back to halfway. Five minutes later, Falko Götz thumped in a diving header. And after Cha Bum-kun levelled, Leverkusen capped another rescue mission by winning the penalty shootout from 2-0 down.
They’ve since bagged one trophy and 10 runners-up medals, so Espanyol supporters may take solace in the karmic price they paid to beat them. Probably not, though.
13. Deportivo 4-3 PSG
Champions League, second group stage, 2000/01
“The players sat in silence for five minutes,” said Deportivo manager Javier Irureta. “That gave them some time for self-analysis. Then I explained that we had to fight to come back and win.” Revolutionary. The result: they let in a third goal immediately.
But Walter Pandiani felt inspired. The future Birmingham man later said, “I didn’t want to say anything, because people will say, ‘You’re crazy’, but I thought, ‘If the Mister brings me on, I’ll score three’.” Crazy? Crazy like a fox. After “the most intense warming-up minutes of my life”, the half-time arrival hit a hat-trick that, supplemented by Diego Tristan’s strike, secured an incredible 4-3 win.
The rally was made even more notable by its necessity. At half-time, with 36-year-old Gheorghe Hagi having given group leaders Galatasaray the lead against Milan, Depor’s seemingly inevitable defeat to PSG left them needing a victory at San Siro six days later. Pandiani’s heroics meant they’d go through with a draw instead. And they did.
12. Roma 3-0 Barcelona (4-4 agg)
Champions League, quarter-final second leg, 2017-18
Roma had lost 4-1 at the Camp Nou. Edin Dzeko’s late effort clawed 3-0 back to 3-1, giving the Italians a handhold, only for Luis Suarez to stamp on their fingers. “Did you think it was all over?” FFT asked Dzeko a year later. “Yes,” replied the striker. “That fourth goal killed me.”
The perfect comeback needs an early goal, to rouse supporters and worry the opposition. Dzeko obliged after six minutes. “Now then!” cried Peter Drury, born to commentate on this game (his introduction had called upon “every Roman deity from Jupiter down”). After half-time, the Giallorossi exploited panic – Lionel Messi, Suarez and Gerard Pique were all booked, latterly for conceding a penalty. Daniele De Rossi’s 58th-minute conversion turned Drury hoarse.
Kostas Manolas headed the deciding goal, meaning he, like De Rossi, had scored for Barça in the first leg and Roma in the second. Drury exploded. “ROMA HAVE RISEN FROM THEIR RUINS! MANOLAS, THE GREEK GOD IN ROME!” The triumph was enough to make owner James Pallotta celebrate in Piazza del Popolo’s fountain. With fountains being kind of a big deal around Rome, the American was fined €450, then donated a further €230,000 to repair another one.
11. Bayer Uerdingen 7-3 Dynamo Dresen (7-5 agg)
Cup Winners’ Cup, quarter-final second leg, 1985/86
When do you give up and go to the pub? Most fans have asked themselves that, and in 1986 Bayer Uerdingen’s players probably did, too.
Uerdingen needed five second-half goals in this Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final. East led West 5-1 in the all-German affair: having won 2-0 at home, Dynamo Dresden scored in the first minute through Ralf Minge (stop it) and were coasting 3-1 on the western side of the wall... before it all came tumbling down.
After getting clattered by Wolfgang Funkel, Dynamo keeper Bernd Jakubovski had to be replaced by Jens Ramme. In front of a rowdy crowd and Bayer security guards acting as ballboys, he conceded six goals in 29 minutes.
Only one was his fault, in fairness, but the Stasi weren’t renowned for fairness. They’d casually advised Dynamo to win, so when they didn’t, coach Klaus Sammer – father to Matthias – was fired for shaming the nation. Striker Frank Lippmann fled the East, never to return again, leaving his team-mates with a stirring farewell: “Take care, assholes.”
10. Benfica 1-3 Ajax (4-4 agg)
European Cup, quarter-final second leg, 1968/69
Eusebio must have hated Inge Danielsson. Two years earlier, he’d fired Sweden to a 2-1 win over Portugal in Lisbon; now here he was scoring again. Yet this European humdinger wasn’t about his four goals across three legs. A baton was passed, from Eusebio’s Benfica to Johan Cruyff’s Ajax.
Benfica had graced five of the past eight European Cup finals. Ajax would grace four of the next five. How fitting, then, that this changing of the guard would be represented in microcosm by a power shift within one tie. Benfica won 3-1 in deep Dutch snow, despite midfielder Toni having not seen snow before – but Ajax led 3-0 at half-time in a stunned Estadio da Luz. Benfica forced a play-off in Paris, where 40,000 Amsterdammers saw their side win 3-0 via Danielsson and Cruyff, who shared all seven Ajax goals over the tie.
Though they’d lose the final, Cruyff’s Ajax then conquered Europe in 1971, ’72 and ’73. Neither Eusebio nor Benfica would do so again. The king was dead; long live the king.
9. Deportivo 4-0 AC Milan (4-3 agg)
Champions League, quarter-final second leg, 2003/04
A day after Real Madrid capsized in Monaco (see No.16), another extraordinary recovery rocked another giant. Deportivo became the first team in the Champions League era to overturn a three-goal first-leg deficit, a result so surprising that Andrea Pirlo still hadn’t got over it a decade later: in his 2014 book, he wondered if Depor’s fired-up players “might have been on something”.
Holders Milan hadn’t conceded on the road in Europe that campaign. They’d topped their group with the fewest goals, though – four in six matches – and even scoring that many in one game wasn’t enough against Deportivo, who’d pulled off this trick before (see No.13).
Depor led 3-0 at the interval after unusual mistakes from Dida and Alessandro Nesta. One-club man Fran found a gratuitous fourth, Javier Irureta celebrated another comeback, while Carlo Ancelotti consoled himself that at least the 2004-05 season couldn’t bring Milan any greater embarrassment than this...
8. Real Madrid 4-0 Borussia Monchengladbach (5-5 agg)
UEFA Cup, third round second leg, 1985/86
We shouldn’t conflate fightbacks with upsets. In the mid-80s, Madrid were the comeback kids and showed that sometimes, would-be giant-killers end up killed by giants.
They’d repeatedly given sides a headstart in their 1984-85 UEFA Cup triumph, rising from the dead against Rijeka (from 0-3 to 4-3 on aggregate), then Anderlecht (0-3 to 6-4) and Inter (0-2 to 3-2). Clearly, this was a winning formula, so they went about defending their title – successfully, it turned out – by losing first legs to AEK Athens, Gladbach and Inter.
Yet even when a 5-1 loss in Germany left Real with a lot to do and without the banned Hugo Sanchez to do it, Los Blancos remained bullish. Juanito combined ambition on the ball with savagery off it, and set up a couple of goals. When he was substituted late on at the Bernabeu, he literally jumped for joy. Real Madrid won back-to-back UEFA Cups and the first of five consecutive La Liga titles. Don’t you just love a happy ending?
7. Middlesbrough 4-2 Steaua (4-3 agg)
UEFA Cup, semi-final second leg, 2005/06
Coached by Steve McClaren, captained by Gareth Southgate, Middlesbrough had DNA that screamed ‘England manager’... perhaps explaining why they fell short. Prior to losing the final 4-0 to UEFA Cup maestros Sevilla, though, Boro worked miracles to get there.
After coasting into the knockouts with six clean sheets, the Teessiders teetered on thin ice. Twice, they won on away goals having let a 2-0 lead slip, then they trailed 3-0 to Basel only to perform a stunning Lazarus act.
This was Act II. Boro required four goals at the Riverside again, scored in the 33rd minute again, and struck twice in the second period again, with Massimo Maccarone completing another remarkable recovery at the death.
There’d be no such heroics against Sevilla – McClaren forgot there was no second leg in which to bounce back. Southgate retired but Mark Schwarzer, Boro’s goalkeeper for their incredible journey, later played 18 games in Fulham’s own odyssey to the Europa League final. Second time lucky? Nope!
6. Fulham 4-1 Juventus (5-4 agg)
Europa League, last-16, second leg, 2009/10
A floodlit Craven Cottage looks magnificent, and in 2009/10 everyone in Europe saw it. Really, everyone: Fulham’s 287-day Europa League campaign brought opponents from Lithuania, Russia, Bulgaria, Switzerland, Ukraine, Italy (twice), Germany (twice) and Spain. The most prestigious: Juventus.
When David Trezeguet notched after only 107 seconds, Juve led 4-1 on aggregate. They had five World Cup winners. Fulham didn’t care. Bobby Zamora bagged after shrugging off Fabio ‘Ballon d’Or’ Cannavaro, who was soon red-carded. Zoltan Gera struck twice, pulling the hosts level, and celebrated his double with a double somersault. Then Clint Dempsey chipped one of the great winners.
Roy Hodgson’s side eventually lost the final to the Atletico Madrid of Sergio Aguero, David de Gea and Diego Forlan. The top assisters of that season’s Europa League were Angel Di Maria (Benfica), Mesut Özil (Werder Bremen), Luis Suarez (Ajax), David Silva (Valencia) and Fulham’s Bjorn Helge Riise.
The next day, a Cottagers staffer reminded Simon Davies that he’d just scored a goal in a European final. Uninvited, a passing Danny Murphy huffed, “Don’t matter, though – we lost”, showing the charisma that’s made him such a popular pundit.
5. Ajax 2-3 Tottenham (3-3 agg)
Champions League, semi-final second leg, 2018/19
Given the lateness, the chasers’ tiredness, and how comprehensively Spurs had been outplayed, few fightbacks surprised more. Tottenham’s quarter-final triumph over Manchester City had been unexpected. This was unfathomable. Ajax had announced Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Donny van de Beek to the world, while making stars out of Hakim Ziyech and Dusan Tadic. They’d ousted Real Madrid and Juventus, won 4-1 at the Bernabeu and hit 165 goals that season, adding No.166 and No.167 here. Spurs were dazed, out of form and without Harry Kane.
But they’d been on life support before: with 15 minutes left in their fourth group match, Spurs had one point. In Amsterdam, they had nothing to lose. Lucas Moura slotted a fine first goal and sensational second, then Dele Alli’s flick (as why wouldn’t you try something with the clock on 94:59?) teed up the treble.
Ajax’s youngsters collapsed onto the grass and Mauricio Pochettino collapsed into tears. Had we ever seen such scenes before...?
4. Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona (4-3 agg)
Champions League, semi-final second leg, 2018/19
Yes – 24 hours earlier. After the semi-finals’ first legs, an Ajax-Barcelona 2019 Champions League Final seemed inevitable. A celebration of Johan Cruyff instead became the John Scales Derby, and a match befitting it... but only after an extraordinary night at Anfield.
Liverpool trailed 3-0 and carried sufficient injuries for Jurgen Klopp to say pre-match, “We start with 11 players and that’s good.” Still, who needs Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino when you’ve got Divock Origi and Xherdan Shaqiri? Origi opened the scoring, Alisson’s heroics and Georginio Wijnaldum’s quickfire brace levelled the tie on aggregate, before Klopp’s men closed it with a moment of majesty. Spotting that Barça were being typically slow at setting up for a defensive set-piece, Trent Alexander-Arnold whipped in an unreasonably good cross, practically on the turn, and Origi did the rest.
Barcelona hadn’t learned lessons from the previous season’s Roma debacle (see No.12). The Spanish press flayed Ernesto Valverde’s flops with words ranging from ‘shameful’ and ‘stupid’ to ‘the greatest humiliation in history’. The Merseysiders had made their own history. Beating Tottenham in the Madrid showpiece was almost an afterthought.
3. Barcelona 1-4 Metz (6-5 agg)
Cup Winners’ Cup, first-round second leg, 1984/85
Is the 85th minute the sweetest time for an unlikely winner? Scoring with the final kick of the match means you can’t enjoy watching your opponents’ desperation. Metz earned that treat. Barcelona earned that treatment.
The Catalans’ reaction to a 4-2 first-leg win in France was lifted directly from The Book of Hubris. Midfielder Bernd Schuster offered the Metz players some local ham “to thank them for our presents”; Barça’s vice-president even invited them to watch the following round as guests. They were genuinely surprised that Metz, who’d lost their opening Ligue 1 away games 4-1 and 7-0, even sent a scout ahead of the return leg.
Pisstake turned to mistake. In a half-empty Camp Nou, Barça extended their advantage and continued to attack, just as a fly attacks a spider’s web. Metz countered dangerously through the pacy Tony Kurbos, delighting the two travelling journalists (French TV didn’t even bother televising it). With five minutes left, the hosts were clinging onto away goals. After Kurbos completed his hat-trick, having also forced an own goal, shot-stopper Michel Ettorre bellowed at Schuster, “Where’s your ham now?!” Accompanying the egg on his face and chip on Ettorre’s shoulder, probably.
Metz, triumphant, faced Bordeaux on their next trip. They lost 6-0.
2. AC Milan 3-3 Liverpool (2-3 pens)
Champions League, final, 2004-05
Anfield needs a statue of Steve Finnan’s groin. His injury necessitated a half-time change in Istanbul where, as you may know, Liverpool trailed Milan 3-0. They’d dug deep to find three second-half goals against Olympiakos when required, doubling their group-stage tally, but this was the final – a recovery was impossible. Except it wasn’t, as substitute Didi Hamann was now plugging the gaps left by Steven Gerrard whenever he felt bored.
Liverpool’s 4-4-1-1 hadn’t worked against Milan’s midfield diamond. They’d conceded in the first minute, ignoring Andy Townsend’s exhortation to “be alive in these early stages, Clive” by letting Paolo Maldini score. Hernan Crespo added two, one assisted gloriously by Kaka, while Milan also had a goal disallowed and spurned a two-on-two. Rafael Benitez’s switch to 3-4-2-1 protected the defence and freed up Gerrard, who steered home a fine header and then won the equalising penalty.
At the other end, Jerzy Dudek’s miraculous double save in the 117th minute took the tie to spot-kicks. The Reds prevailed courtesy of more Dudek heroics – Benitez thanked him by promptly signing Pepe Reina – and at half past midnight in Turkey, Liverpool won a fifth European Cup. All because of Finnan’s groin.
1. Barcelona 6-1 PSG (6-5 agg)
Champions League, last-16 second leg, 2016/17
The clock read 87:23 when Neymar netted what was obviously a consolation. Though it put Barcelona 4-1 up in the second leg, they needed six, PSG having obliterated them 4-0 in Paris. Some 96,000 fans were in the Camp Nou to see the stars; Barça’s best hope was to wish upon one.
Their rebellion had been quashed at 3-0 by Edinson Cavani’s emphatic finish. In the 85th minute, Angel Di Maria was one-on-one with Marc-Andre ter Stegen, holding the final nail for Barça’s coffin, only to drop it and bash his finger. “That’s probably not going to matter,” counselled Ian Nostra-Darke-mus.
But Neymar grabbed the game by its balls.
On 87:23, he curled home an unstoppable free-kick. Barely 90 seconds later, Luis Suarez tumbled and this time, contact accompanied his dive. As the clock turned red, Neymar – not Suarez, and not Lionel Messi – confidently scored the penalty. One more goal needed.
For PSG, four minutes’ stoppage time feels like four hours. Gerard ‘Targetman’ Pique can’t quite direct a flick-on. Three minutes remain. A Barcelona hoof goes straight out of play. Two minutes. Ter Stegen attacks a free-kick; it’s cleared and Marco Verratti steals the ball on halfway, but with Barça’s goal gaping, the keeper scrambles back. Thirty seconds. PSG repel another free-kick.
Then Neymar, under extraordinary pressure, shows extraordinary composure. Feinting to shoot from well outside the box, he stops his follow-through and stabs a flat, chipped pass over 10 PSG players into Sergi Roberto, who launches himself at the ball. With 20 seconds remaining, it crosses the line for the 11th and final time in a staggering contest.
“There’ll be a lot of love made tonight,” exclaimed Pique afterwards (lucky Shakira, eh). La petite mort followed. The epilogue to La Remontada – ‘The Comeback’ merits its definite article – saw Neymar sign for PSG, to no one’s on-pitch benefit. Four years later, Barcelona, destitute, lost Messi to France’s not-so-nouveau riche, who still haven’t won a Champions League title. There have been accusations, recriminations, court cases and too few trophies.
The comeback starts here.
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Huw was on the FourFourTwo staff from 2009 to 2015, ultimately as the magazine's Managing Editor, before becoming a freelancer and moving to Wales. As a writer, editor and tragic statto, he still contributes regularly to FFT in print and online, though as a match-going #WalesAway fan, he left a small chunk of his brain on one of many bus journeys across France in 2016.