Last week’s Europa League semi-final first legs had it all – drama, controversy, and goals in abundance. Arsenal’s 2-1 away defeat at Villareal left the tie on a knife-edge. Will The Gunners have a last four moment of their own, or will Unai Emery get his revenge over the North London club on Thursday?
In the other semi-final, Roma will need to rise from their ruins once again after their 6-2 drubbing at Old Trafford. Can the Italians somehow manage to recreate another unbelievable European comeback, or will Manchester United canter their way to Gdansk?
To get us in the mood for this Thursday’s second legs, we take a look back at some incredible Europa League semi-final moments from years gone by.
Forlan silences the Kop
Liverpool are no strangers to having Atletico Madrid break their hearts. Just last season, Marcos Llorente’s stunning extra-time brace ended the Anfield club’s reign as European champions. 10 years prior, Diego Forlan did some stunning of his own.
In 2009/10, The Reds were enduring their worst season under Rafa Benitez. A third-place finish in a weak Champions League group meant that they would be plying their European trade on Thursday nights. Struggling without their midfield maestro Xabi Alonso – who was sold to Real Madrid at the start of the season – Rafa’s men could only manage a seventh-place finish in the Premier League.
The Europa League provided some welcome respite from their domestic woes, however. They comfortably saw off Romanian champions Unirea Urzicens, French side Lille – who would go on to win Ligue 1 the following season, and Portuguese giants Benfica, en route to their semi-final showdown with Los Rojiblancos.
Atleti were enduring some difficulties of their own in Spain. They hobbled their way to a ninth-place finish in La Liga. The firepower of Forlan and a 21-year-old Sergio Aguero had led them to the Copa Del Rey final though, as well as a European adventure for the ages.
The Spaniards held a slender 1-0 lead ahead of the return leg, as a ninth-minute goal from Uruguay’s number 10 left the tie finely poised. Benitez hoped that a raucous atmosphere at Anfield would see his side across the line in the second leg, and they looked to be well on their way. Injury-riddled Alberto Aquilani gave the hosts the lead on the brink of halftime, turning home Yossi Benayoun’s right-wing cross to level the tie. They couldn’t get the all-important winner though, sending the nervy affair into extra time.
With news filtering through of a special night in West London (more on that later), there was a potential English final on the cards. Benayoun’s brilliant left-footed finish five minutes into extra time sent Anfield into bedlam and left that possibility looking more and more likely. Step up, Diego Forlan.
Just seven minutes after The Reds took control of the tie, they were pegged back by a crucial away goal. Jose Antonio Reyes burst into the penalty area and his left-footed cross found the ex-Manchester United man unmarked at the back post, who hammered the ball past a helpless Pepe Reina. The goal sparked jubilant scenes in front of the Kop and left the hosts stunned into silence. Liverpool would huff and puff in the minutes that remained but were unable to force a winner, leaving Atletico to progress to the Hamburg final.
Dnipro stun Napoli
Some readers may not have heard of FC Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk, and that isn’t surprising. Due to financial troubles, the club ceased to exist as it was previously known. The club currently ply their trade as SC Dnipro-1, after being forced to reform and work their way up through the Ukrainian football pyramid. But back in 2014/15, they gave us an underdog story for the ages.
Powered by the creativity of winger Yehvan Konoplyanka and the goals of Nikola Kalinic, they managed to finish second in Group F behind Inter Milan. In the knockout stages, they knocked off Greek champions Olympiacos and Dutch champions Ajax, before beating Belgian Pro League runners-up Club Brugge to book their spot in the semi-finals.
Napoli, by contrast, were no underdog. Their team was made up of household names such as captain Marek Hamsik, Lorenzo Insigne, Dries Mertens, Jorginho, and Kalidou Koulibaly. Add to that the firepower of one of Europe’s most lethal strikers, Gonzalo Higuain, and it was no surprise that the Italians were overwhelming favourites to see off the plucky Ukrainian underdogs.
Dnipro managed to steal a 1-1 draw from the Stadio San Paolo in the first leg, despite being under heavy pressure for the vast majority of the affair. Unable to play the return fixtures in their home stadium due to the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine, leaving 60,000 of their supporters to descend upon Kiev’s Olympic Stadium, in the belief that the greatest night in the club’s history was within reach.
The hosts once again came under pressure, with the dangerous Higuain forcing two good saves from keeper Denys Boyko in the first 20 minutes. The home side second best, but the visitors were unable to turn their dominance into goals and were made to pay. Just before the hour mark, Konoplyanka managed to break away down the left-hand side and float over a cross into the center, which striker Yevhen Seleznyov nodded past Mariano Andújar.
Napoli would push for an equaliser but were unable to breach the Boyko wall, and the final whistle was greeted with elated home fans invading the pitch and celebrating one of the most unlikely victories in the history of the competition.
Llorente’s Late Show
Athletic Bilbao are no strangers to success. They are considered royalty in their homeland – having never been relegated from La Liga during their 123-year history – and having won the Spanish top flight on eight separate occasions. Their most successful period was back in the 1980s, and they had not reached a major European final since 1977. That was all about to change in 2011/12 under El Loco, Marcelo Bielsa.
The Basque club had convincingly seen off tournament favourites Manchester United at the last 16 stage, before defeating German giants Schalke in the quarter-finals. The final hurdle that awaited them was 18-time Portuguese champions, Sporting CP.
With 75 minutes on the clock in the first leg, it looked like smooth sailing for Los Leones. Full-back Jon Aurtenetxe’s crucial away goal shortly before the hour mark meant that they led 1-0 in Lisbon, but late goals from ex-Liverpool man Emiliano Insúa and Diego Capel gave the hosts the advantage.
Cut to one week later and the Bilbao faithful were expectant. The locals had turned San Mamés into a cauldron and the atmosphere reached fever pitch as the players entered the field. Their expectancy turned into jubilation after just 17 minutes. Fernando Llorente – surprisingly one of Europe’s most coveted strikers at the time – deftly chested down to Markel Susaeta inside the penalty area, whose scuffed volley found its way over Rui Patricio and into the net.
There was a plot twist, however. Sporting – who were looking to rectify their mistakes of 2005, where they lost the UEFA Cup final 3-1 against CSKA Moscow in their own stadium – managed to scramble an equaliser through Ricky Van Wolfswinkel. San Mamés was silenced. But not for long. Just seconds later, the home side were back in front through Ibai Gómez. Queue bedlam once more.
The tie was in the balance throughout a nervy second period and looked set for extra time. That was until the local hero Llorente finally made his mark. With just three minutes of normal time remaining, the ball made its way to Ibai once more. His left-footed cross found the giant target man, who prodded home from inside the six-yard box, to seal a 3-1 win on the night and a date with Atletico Madrid in Dublin. Limbs.
Craven Cottage Comeback
Fulham’s European quest is well documented, but their semi-final tie is often overlooked in favour of the more glamorous last 16 tussle with Juventus. That night was indeed unforgettable. After their refusal to surrender against Italian football’s Old Lady – a performance which epitomised everything about Roy Hodgson’s heroic side – it’s easy to forget that the Cottagers still had a long way to go if they were to punch their own ticket to the 2009/10 showpiece.
The West London side comfortably saw off German champions Wolfsburg at the quarter-final stage booking their spot in the final four against another German side. Hamburg — whose stadium would host the final — were determined to be guests at their own party. With the predatory Ruud Van Nistelrooy leading the line alongside Mladen Petric – the man who sent England crashing out of Euro 2008 before the tournament even began – it was never going to be easy.
The first leg in Germany finished 0–0 and the resilient visitors had their keeper to thank, with Mark Schwarzer providing a string of crucial saves to keep the scores level. Worryingly though, Zamora — the star of their European campaign thus far — had limped off with an injury and faced a race against time to be available for the second leg.
There was an air of anticipation at Craven Cottage a week later, partly owing to the fact that Zamora was deemed fit enough to start. For the first time during their entire run, the home fans were quietly confident of victory. That confidence was shattered after just 22 minutes though, as the travelling side took the lead through a stunning 30-yard free-kick from the talented Petric.
This Fulham side — channeling the incredible journey they had been on — was made of sterner stuff though. They threw everything at the visitors after the break, and then in seven second-half minutes, they were rewarded. An exquisite goal from Simon Davies brought them level in the 69th minute and shortly after, Zoltan Gera completed the comeback. After withstanding a late barrage from the Germans, the final whistle sounded and incredible scenes followed, scenes that may never be repeated on the banks of the Thames.
Emery comes back to haunt Valencia
After being appointed in the summer of 2008, Unai Emery enjoyed a great four-year spell as manager of Valencia. He led them back to Champions League football despite a calamitous financial situation behind the scenes, resulting in the sales of star players David Villa and David Silva. Following three consecutive third-place finishes in La Liga, the Spaniard headed off to Spartak Moscow, but following a disastrous spell in Russia, found himself back in Spain with Sevilla in January 2013.
He could only manage a 9th placed finish in his first season in charge of the Andalusian club. As Malaga – the sixth-placed team in La Liga – were banned from European competition for breaching Financial Fair Play rules, and Rayo Vallecano – 8th placed in La Liga – were unable to obtain a UEFA license, Emery’s side somehow found themselves in the Europa League.
After navigating a tricky route to the final four, destiny intervened, leaving Emery to a battle against his old employers for a place in the final. It looked like a battle that his side would win, after two goals in three minutes from Stephane M’Bia and Carlos Bacca gave them a healthy 2-0 lead to defend in the Mestalla.
Good ebening pic.twitter.com/XOGWhabxVG
— Jack (@JackGrey7) April 29, 2021
Valencia though were no stranger to an impossible comeback. In the previous round they had managed to overturn a three-goal deficit against FC Basel to secure a 5-3 aggregate victory and after Sofiane Feghouli’s shot deflected past Sevilla ‘keeper Beto in the 14th minute, their hopes of reaching Turin were strengthened. When Jonas’ bullet header bounced down off the crossbar and ricocheted off the back of Beto and into the net just 12 minutes later, the hosts looked firm favourites.
When Jeremy Mathieu – the most unlikely of goalscorers – rifled home from Nicolás Cartabia’s corner in the 70th minute, the comeback appeared to be complete. In the minutes that remained the visitors knew that all was not lost, and pushed for the all-important away goal. And they were rewarded for their endeavour in the most dramatic of fashion. With 93 minutes on the clock, Coke’s long throw was flicked on by Federico Fazio, and M’Bia powered his header past Diego Alves from point-blank range to give Emery the away goals victory, and boy did he celebrate.