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What on earth is this madness? First, Liverpool overturned a 3-0 first-leg defeat against the mighty Barcelona at Anfield; then Tottenham made sure of an all-English final by scoring three times in the second half to dump out Ajax on away goals. Nonsensical.
So while establishing a sizeable lead in the first leg of a European tie is every manager’s dream scenario, such healthy advantages have been thrown away in nightmare second legs. In this slideshow, we rank the craziest comebacks in European competition...
Odense vs Real Madrid, 1994-95 (2-3, 2-0)
Real Madrid have lost only two European ties after winning the away leg first, and the first – until 2018/19, the only – came against Danish side Odense in the UEFA Cup. After Los Blancos triumphed 3-2 in Denmark courtesy of local hero Michael Laudrup's last-gasp winner, few gave their opponents a chance at the Bernabeu – so much that only 30,000 supporters bothered showing up.
But after Ulrik Pedersen pulled a goal back with 15 minutes to go, Morten Bisgaard – later of Derby – rifled past Santiago Canizares to seal a stunning 4-3 aggregate win. Odense's adventure ended against Parma in the quarter-finals.
Deportivo vs Milan, 2003-04 (1-4, 4-0)
“For the first and only time in my life, I wondered if my opponents were on something,” said Andrea Pirlo after Deportivo’s astonishing turnaround in this 2004 Champions League encounter.
Milan collapsed in Galicia after winning 4-1 at San Siro, with Walter Pandiani, Juan Carlos Valeron, Albert Luque and Fran all scoring to send the La Liga outfit through. Manager Javier Irureta later fulfilled his pre-match promise to make the 35-mile pilgrimage to the catholic shrine in Santiago de Compostela if his team overturned the deficit.
Ajax vs Panathinaikos, 1995-96 (0-1, 3-0)
A huge crowd of 77,000 expectant Panathinaikos fans packed the Olympic Stadium in Athens after a single-goal win in the first leg of this Champions League semi-final, but they were quickly silenced by Jari Litmanen’s early goal.
Louis van Gaal’s young side then took control, netting two late goals via Litmanen and Nordin Wooter, and becoming the first side in the Champions League era to overturn a first-leg home defeat. It wasn't enough to take them all the way, though – Ajax lost the final on penalties to Juventus.
Inter vs Bayern Munich, 2010-11 (0-1, 3-2)
Having waited 45 years to recapture the trophy by beating Bayern in the 2010 final, Inter weren't about to give it up at the first knockout stage. But after the Germans won 1-0 at San Siro through Mario Gomez's injury-time strike, the Italians would have to become only the second side since 1992-93 to come back from a first-leg home defeat in Europe's premier competition.
Samuel Eto'o struck early in Bavaria but Gomez bagged again, and a Thomas Muller chip seemed to have ended the tie before half-time. But Wesley Sneijder levelled on the night and Goran Pandev struck with two minutes left to send the Italians through on away goals.
German revenge arrived immediately: in the quarter-finals, Schalke won 5-2 at San Siro and 2-1 back in Gelsenkirchen. Schalke finished 35 points behind champions Borussia Dortmund in that season's Bundesliga.
PSG vs Barcelona, 2016-17 (4-0, 1-6)
PSG appeared to have belatedly cracked this Champions League lark with a 4-0 humbling of Barcelona in the first leg of the pair’s last-16 clash in 2016-17. Things got a little nervy for the Ligue 1 giants when they fell 3-0 behind at the Camp Nou, but a crucial away goal from Edinson Cavani left PSG with one foot in the quarter-final.
Barcelona’s dreams looked dashed, and they still needed three goals with just two minutes of normal time remaining. Neymar gave them a sliver of hope with a free-kick in the 88th minute, before coolly slotting home a penalty in stoppage time.
The hosts still needed another, and PSG thought they’d got the job done after successfully defending a couple of set-pieces. But in the fifth minute of stoppage time, Sergi Roberto was on hand to turn Neymar’s delivery home and send the Camp Nou into raptures.
Monaco vs Real Madrid, 2003-04 (2-4, 3-1)
When Madrid loaned Fernando Morientes to Monaco in summer 2003, they felt it would give the forward the necessary exposure to land a big-money move the following summer. Little did they know that it would be their own man who would dump them out of the Champions League.
After netting a crucial away goal in a 4-2 Bernabeu defeat, the striker powered a header past Iker Casillas in the second leg. With Ludovic Giuly goals sandwiching the Spaniard’s strike, Monaco advanced to the final on away goals. Have that!
Partizan vs QPR, 1984-85 (2-6, 4-0)
Pitted against Partizan in the UEFA Cup, QPR ran out 6-2 winners in a ‘home’ game played at Arsenal’s Highbury after Loftus Road’s plastic pitch was deemed unsuitable for continental competition.
Alan Mullery’s men were confident of progression when they travelled to Belgrade for the return, only to be dismantled 4-0 and sent packing on away goals. “Mullery chased us down the tunnel telling us to come back for extra time,” said goalkeeper Peter Hucker. “He didn’t even know the rules.”
Metz vs Barcelona, 1984-85 (2-4, 4-1)
After winning the first leg of this Cup Winners' Cup first round game in France, Barça star Bernd Schuster offered to “give the Metz players some ham to thank them for all the presents they’ve given us tonight”. No French TV or radio station bothered to send anyone to the Camp Nou return, and their decision looked vindicated after Metz fell 5-2 behind on aggregate.
But two goals before half-time were followed by another one 10 minutes after the restart, before Yugoslav striker Tony Kurbos completed his hat-trick and wrapped up a stunning victory over Terry Venables’ side three minutes from time.
“At full-time I ran straight up to Schuster and bawled ‘Where’s your ham now?’” chuckled Metz goalkeeper Michel Ettorre.
Bayer Leverkusen vs Espanyol, 1987-88 (0-3, 3-0, 3-2 pens)
Back when UEFA Cup finals were two-legged affairs, Espanyol looked to have one hand on the trophy after beating Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 in Catalonia. When they got to half-time of the return leg with their three-goal aggregate lead still intact, the showpiece was as good as over.
Leverkusen pulled a goal back in the 57th minute, though, before substitute Falko Gotz and Cha Bum-kun levelled the tie late on. The final went to penalties, where there was only ever going to be one outcome: the Germans won.
Bayer Uerdingen vs Dynamo Dresden, 1985-86 (0-2, 7-3)
In this West vs East Germany Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final showdown, the pressure was on Dresden after the Stasi insisted they got to the semi-finals. After a 2-0 home win, progress looked a formality when Dynamo led 5-1 on aggregate at half-time.
But Uerdingen then scored an implausible six goals in 30 minutes to progress, much to the Stasi's anger. Dresden striker Frank Lippman fled to the GDR and never returned, while manager Klaus Sammer (pictured) was fired for bringing shame on the nation. Uerdingen were beaten in the semi-finals by Atletico Madrid.
Real Madrid vs Derby, 1975-76 (1-4, 5-1)
Brian Clough’s signing of Dave Mackay was crucial to Derby’s promotion to the First Division in 1970-71, and the Scot later led the Rams to their second top-flight title as manager. He was also at the helm for the East Midlanders’ second European Cup campaign, where they met Real Madrid in the second round.
Charlie George scored three times in a famous 4-1 home win, but Derby collapsed in the second leg. A brace from Roberto Martinez (no, not that one) helped Madrid to a thumping 5-1 victory in front of 120,000 fans at the Bernabeu.
Barcelona vs Liverpool, 2018-19 (0-3, 4-0)
Ousmane Dembele may have sleepless nights for some time yet. You could just about laugh off his inglorious miss late in the first leg when Barcelona were already 3-0 up thanks to yet another Lionel Messi masterclass – but not for long. Messi's pained expression despite a handsome victory said it all. And so to Anfield, where a Mo Salah- and Roberto Firmino-less Liverpool were trying to do the impossible. But in their stead, others stepped up. Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum both bagged braces either side of half-time as the Reds ran rampant, capping victory with a baffling short corner routine when Origi smashed home Trent Alexander-Arnold's inventive set-piece. Stunning.
Ousmane Dembele may have sleepless nights for some time yet. You could just about laugh off his inglorious miss late in the first leg when Barcelona were already 3-0 up thanks to yet another Lionel Messi masterclass – but not for long. Messi's pained expression despite a handsome victory said it all.
And so to Anfield, where a Mo Salah- and Roberto Firmino-less Liverpool were trying to do the impossible. But in their stead, others stepped up.
Divock Origi and Georginio Wijnaldum both bagged braces either side of half-time as the Reds ran rampant, capping victory with a baffling short corner routine when Origi smashed home Trent Alexander-Arnold's inventive set-piece. Stunning.
Tottenham vs Ajax, 2018-19 (0-1, 3-2)
One day after Liverpool's stunning win over Barça, Tottenham pulled off a similar feat in Amsterdam. They'd lost the first leg on home soil in a poor display that could have ended far worse, when shorn of the injured Harry Kane and suspended Son Heung-min.
Son returned for the second leg, but it was his team-mate Lucas Moura who stole the show with a devastating hat-trick against the Eredivisie side who led 2-0 – 3-0 on aggregate – at half-time.
Lucas's quickfire double just before the hour mark made things very interesting indeed, but as the clock ticked beyond five minutes of added time, things looked bleak. Not so: astonishingly, Lucas was on hand to spin home in the 96th minute and reduce Mauricio Pochettino to tears.
Greg Lea is a freelance football journalist who's filled in wherever FourFourTwo needs him since 2014. He became a Crystal Palace fan after watching a 1-0 loss to Port Vale in 1998, and once got on the scoresheet in a primary school game against Wilfried Zaha's Whitehorse Manor (an own goal in an 8-0 defeat).
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