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Ajax, Manchester United and the unlikeliest two-legged comebacks in European football history

Ajax and Manchester United joined an exclusive club recently, completing astounding comebacks against all odds in the second leg of their respective Champions League ties.

Manchester United completed one of the least likely comebacks in the history of the Champions League last month, defeating Paris Saint Germain 3-1 last Wednesday night to qualify for the quarter-finals. Although other teams have come back from bigger deficits to win two-legged ties, history was weighing heavily against the Red Devils.

Before that game, only Real Madrid had come back from 2-0 down after the opening leg, beating Wolfsburg 3-0 at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in the UCL, while Roma also came back to win by the same scoreline in a controversial game against Dundee United in the European Cup back in 1984 (a game we’ll get to in further detail later).

No side had ever lost a home leg by two goals to nil and recovered however, which is exactly what United did. Add to the fact that the side were missing a rake of first-team players to either injury or suspension, and this game is right up there with the most shocking of comebacks.

That followed on from Ajax’s incredible victory over Real Madrid the night before, when the Dutch side mangled the reigning champions 4-1. The Amsterdam outfit too had lost the home leg (2-1) before their band of rising starlets announced themselves on the world stage.

The beauty of European competition is that these improbable sights are littered throughout the history of the game, arising every so often to remind us why we love it so much. From the Champions League to the Uefa Cup, from the Europa League to the European Cup, here are some of the most unimaginable recoveries in chronological order:

Ten of the unlikeliest comebacks over two legs in European football

Roma 4-4 Barcelona, Champions League quarter-final, 2018

In typically modern fashion, I vividly recall finding out the result of this insane game after checking the Livescore app on my phone and being absolutely incredulous at the sight of it. I had seen the Romans had pulled themselves to within one goal of their illustrious opponents, but still reckoned, as I imagine many did, that Barça would do just enough to hold onto their slim lead.

They did not, and the Catalans let their 4-1 first leg lead slip away in the return fixture, losing to a late Kostas Manolas goal at the Stadio Olimpico. That moment result in one of the greatest Champions League commentaries, Peter Drury’s self-styled bombast perfectly encapsulating the madness of the moment.

Roma almost completed an even more extraordinary comeback in the semi-final against Liverpool after losing the away leg 5-2, coming within one goal of taking the eventual runners-up to extra-time.

PSG 5-6 Barcelona, Champions League round of 16, 2017

Just a year before losing in extraordinary circumstances to Roma, they had defeated another team in arguably the greatest comeback ever seen in the sport.

The Parisian outfit won the first leg 4-0, a result that was viewed by many as the club’s long-awaited arrival on the big stage of Europe’s elite. Before the second leg, however, a video emerged of Marco Verratti, Julian Draxler, Blaise Matuidi and Thomas Meunier discussing potentially losing to Barça. Verratti asks his teammates if they’d be happy to lose 5-1 and still progress.

Fate was surely tempted on this occasion, as PSG capitulated at the Nou Camp, losing 6-1 on the night. Edinson Cavani did score an away goal in the second half that appeared to effectively kill off the tie, but three goals from the 88th minute(!) onwards saw the Catalans progress to the next round.

It was probably Neymar’s finest performance for the Blaugrana, spearheading the late onslaught on a night when Lionel Messi was unusually subdued, although the Brazilian would eventually swap sides for a world record transfer fee. Barcelona would bow out quite meekly to Juventus in the next round, robbing everyone of a potential El Classico final.

Liverpool 5-4 Dortmund, Europa League quarter-final, April 2016

About as dramatic as it gets when it comes to European football and one of, if not the, most memorable Europa League ties of all-time. Jurgen Klopp returned to face his former club – having joined Liverpool earlier on in the season to take over from Brendan Rodgers – where he had brought great success to Borussia Dortmund.

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Neither side could be separated in the first leg, as it ended 1-1 at the Westfalenstadion. The return fixture at Anfield was a different matter, however, as the Germans raced into a two-goal lead within the first nine minutes. The Reds would need to score three times to progress to the semi-finals.

Divock Origi pulled one back just after half time, but a Marco Reus goal just before the hour mark seemingly killed off the tie as a contest; the hosts would need to score three times in the space of 30 minutes to go through.

In scenes reminiscent of That Night In Istanbul, Liverpool, buoyed by a raucous atmosphere, clawed their way back into the game with scores from Philippe Coutinho and Mamadou Sakho. The away goals rule meant that Dortmund would still progress — that is, until Dejan Lovren of all people popped up to score an injury-time winner.

That finish also gave us this incredible piece of commentary/noise from John Aldridge:

Read: How Borussia Dortmund nearly lost everything before returning to the top of German football

Napoli 4-5 Chelsea, Champions League round of 16, 2012

This particular game is most reminiscent of Man United’s midweek triumph. At the time of the first leg, Chelsea were a shell of a team, going on to lose to a Napoli side that had plenty of talent but precious little experience of Champions League football. That was enough to earn Andre Villas Boas the sack, with club legend Roberto Di Matteo stepping in on an interim basis.

From that point on their season would undergo a phenomenal transformation, consigning their woeful form to oblivion before going on to complete a cup and Champions League double under their caretaker manager.

The Blues won the return fixture at Stamford Bridge by three goals to one, sending the game to extra-time, where Branislav Ivanovic was the unlikely hero with his 105th minute winner.

Walter Mazzarri was the manager in the opposite dugout on that night, and he would go on to manage Internazionale for a season before taking over at Watford for one campaign. He’s currently in charge of Torino. Di Matteo earned himself the Chelsea job on a permanent basis thanks to his phenomenal success, but he was soon found to be out of his depth the very next season.

Another famous comeback involving Chelsea is their 6-4 aggregate defeat at the hands of Barcelona in the Champions League quarter-finals in 2000, although I’m not sure if it quite reaches the bar for ‘unlikely’ here. Plus, we would be here all day if I included every last come-from-behind drama. In any case it is definitely worth reliving here.

Read: Chelsea’s transfer ban hurts doubly after years of mismanagement

AC Milan 4-5 Deportivo, Champions League quarter-final, 2004

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As reigning champions, there was little chance that Milan were going to bow out of the competition to a small provincial club from the north of Spain. And when they won the first leg 4-1, Deportivo could say “sayonara” to the competition.

As Andrea Pirlo later wrote in his autobiography: “the chances of us not going through were roughly equal to those of seeing Rino (Gennaro) Gattuso complete an arts degree.”

Depor would not say farewell to the Champions League, however, scoring four unanswered goals at the Estadio Riazor to win 5-4 on aggregate, completing one of the biggest shocks in the competition’s history.

It was the biggest turnaround the tournament had ever seen, as four-goal deficits had only ever been overturned in Uefa’s secondary competitions up to that point, and was only bettered by Barcelona in 2017.

One look at the Milan line-up tells you how big a shock this truly was; the squad was filled with stars like Cafu, Alessandro Nesta, Paolo Maldini, Pirlo, Andriy Shevchenko, Kaka and Clarence Seedorf. So shocking, in fact, that Pirlo believes it may not have been achieved by traditional methods.

“Our opponents were going at a thousand miles an hour all night, even the older players who’d never exactly been known for their ability to combine speed with stamina,” the midfielder wrote. “For the first and only time in my life, I’ve wondered if people I’d shared a pitch with might have been on something.”

Real Madrid 5-5 Monaco, Champions League quarter-final, 2004 

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The 2004 Champions League was bloody good, wasn’t it? Loads of great football with exciting games and unpredictable results, ending with a surprise winner at the end of it all.

Monaco contributed hugely to the quality of that season’s edition with their run to the final in Gelsenkirchen, which included a remarkable victory over Real Madrid.

At the height of the Galacticos at this time, the Spanish club won the home leg 4-2, before Fernando Morientes came back to haunt his old club with the second goal of a 3-1 victory.

Ludovic Giuly nabbed a brace to send the principality through to the semi-finals at the expense of Real, who featured the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and Ronaldo.

Monaco defeated Chelsea in another entertaining tie in the semi-final, before losing to FC Porto in the final, but that side will always be the champions of this writer’s heart.

Shelbourne 3-7 Rangers, UEFA Cup first qualifying round first leg, 1998

An unlikely comeback? Probably not, as Rangers were several times the size of their Irish opponents, but going behind like they did certainly was, while the manner of the comeback is unlike many we have seen in European football.

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The first leg took place at Prenton Park, Tranmere Rovers’ home ground, as Tolka Park was ruled out as a venue due to security concerns over Gers’ fans travelling to Ireland. Shels were in dreamland after 58 minutes, running up a 3-0 lead over the Scottish side. By the 59th minute, however, the dream began to disintegrate before turning into a full-on nightmare.

Jorg Albertz got Rangers on the scoresheet with a penalty, followed by goals from Gabriel Amato (2) and Giovanni van Bronckhorst which gave them the lead, before Albertz rounded out the scoreline with another penalty with seven minutes to go. Five goals in just 24 minutes turned disaster into one of their most famous wins.

Dick Advocaat’s first competitive game in charge was also likely the most eventful of his reign in Glasgow, while the second leg saw his charges secure a routine 2-0 win over the Irish outfit. Gennaro Gattuso, Barry Ferguson and Antti Niemi are some notable names from that game who went on to greater things, particularly the Italian.

Read: Can Ultras fan culture improve the sterile atmospheres at British football grounds?

Leeds United 4-4 Stuttgart, Champions League first round, 1992

One of the most bizarre fixtures in the history of European competition, this game technically breaks our own rule as it had to be decided by a third leg.

Stuttgart won the first leg 3-0, but Leeds were able to turn over the Germans 4-1 at Elland Road, the opening goal of which saw a superb move between Gordon Strachan, Eric Cantona and Gary Speed end up in a goal by the Welshman.

That should have been enough to see the Bundesliga outfit through on the away goal rule, but it transpired they had made four substitutions on the night. As a result Leeds were awarded a 3-0 win, turning the aggregate score into a stalemate.

After lengthy deliberations, Uefa ruled that the tie should be decided by a play-off, although the Yorkshire club were adamant their opponents should have been disqualified.

The Division One champions eventually progressed to the next round of the competition, defeating Stuttgart 2-1 at the Nou Camp, which was chosen as a neutral venue.

Read: Eric Cantona and how he made us feel

Dundee United 2-3 Roma, European Cup semi-final, 1984

The mere fact that Dundee United appeared in a European Cup semi-final is remarkable in its own right; the fact that they probably should have reached the final is downright astonishing.

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The Scottish side won the first leg 2-0, taking full advantage of the inclement weather at their “shitty wee stadium” to put one foot in the final. The Romans were intent on reaching the showpiece fixture though, as it would be taking place in their home stadium. The second leg was set for the late afternoon, when the heat and sunlight would be at its worst for the pasty Scots, while fans did their best to unrest the visitors, pelting the team bus with objects.

Assistant manager Walter Smith said of the ‘hospitality’: “The animosity towards us was clear. They did everything to make us feel uncomfortable, even the waiters in the hotel weren’t friendly.”

Roma would win the game 3-0, sending them through to the final against Liverpool, against whom they fell to defeat on penalties. The fallout from the victory over United has lasted until very recently, after a Roma director last year confirmed the referee had been paid off so as to assure passage to the decider. Unsurprisingly, UEFA has made every effort to sweep the controversy under the rug ever since.

If you happen to have literally nothing better to do, you can watch the full game here.

Derby County 5-6 Real Madrid, European Cup second round, 1975

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This tie is arguably more noteworthy for Derby County’s 4-1 win over Real Madrid as it is for the comeback that would eventually eliminate the English champions in extra-time.

The first leg is right up there with some of the most embarrassing defeats the Spanish club has suffered during their storied history in the tournament. Managed by Brian Clough, Derby would have been considered a formidable force in British football at the time, although a team with the size and history of Real would have felt disgusted with themselves for losing to their decidedly less glamorous opponents.

The East Midlands outfit did a good job of containing Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu, holding the hosts to just a 1-0 lead at the interval. Los Blancos would become unleashed in the second-half though, scoring twice quickly after the restart.

Charlie George, who scored a hat-trick in the first leg, pulled one back for the Rams, but they would concede from the penalty spot to send it to extra-time, where Real would score the fifth and decisive goal.

See Also: The all-time Premier League Dutch XI