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The 10 Best Comebacks in European Football History

It feels as though we are living through a golden age of European football. Certainly the knockout stages of the Champions League and Europa League have provided some incredible drama in recent years and football fans have already been treated to more of the same this season.

Big second leg wins for Ajax, Manchester United and Juventus showed that the Champions League is far from predictable. The Europa League has provided its fair share of shocks and comebacks too, including this week with Arsenal winning their return leg 3-0, which led us to wonder what are the best comebacks in European history?

We’ve poured through the history books and come up with the list below, which lies somewhere between “no particular order” and “mainly in order”! That means we’ve got to start in Istanbul Liverpool fans!

Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan – 2004/05 Champions League Final

When it comes to comebacks inside one match, Liverpool’s win in the 2005 Champions League final is the daddy of them all. AC Milan’s position was so strong when 3-0 up that some Liverpool fans famously gave up and left the Atatürk Olympic Stadium at half time. Whoops!

Rafa Benitez and his players, led by, who else but Steven Gerrard, were having none of it though. They staged an incredible comeback, scoring three goals inside six minutes to take the match to extra time. Liverpool still had to ride their luck a little bit as Milan continued to miss chances but by the time the penalty shootout came around the winners appeared to be written in the stars. The “Miracle of Istanbul” should remind any football fans who feel sorry for Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea that the Liverpool captain helped dish out more than his fair share of heartbreak to other players and supporters!

Barcelona 6-1 PSG – 2016/17 Champions League Round of 16

Ever since being taken over by Qatari Sports Investment, Paris Saint-Germain have spent a mind boggling amount of money in their search for Champions League success. They’ve built some wonderfully talented squads but there’s a feeling that a lot needs to change in their mentality before they have any chance of winning Europe’s premier competition.

Pundits question whether their lack of regular top level opponents in France leaves them a little short on the biggest stage, whilst they are also garnering an unwanted reputation for bottling it in the Champions league.

That supposed weak mentality was unfortunately on full display during the second leg of their Round of 16 tie with Barcelona in 2017. PSG took what looked to be an unassailable 4-0 lead to Catalunya but somehow managed to lose the tie despite scoring an away goal in the Camp Nou. The 6-1 scoreline to Barcelona which included three goals after the 88th minute will never be forgotten by anybody who watched it whether in person or on TV.

PSG 1-3 Man Utd – 2018/19 Champions League Round of 16

PSG may not have secured as big a lead against Man Utd in the first leg of their Round of 16 meeting in this season’s (2018-19) Champions League but some suggested their position was even stronger given that their 2-0 win came at Old Trafford.

No team had ever progressed to the next round having lost the first leg 2-0 and PSG even quelled a fast start by United when Juan Bernat cancelled out Romelu Lukaku’s second minute opener. The Belgian striker capitalised on an uncharacteristic error from Gianluigi Buffon to make things interesting before half time but the game was petering out in predictable fashion before a controversial last gasp VAR decision awarded a penalty to Man Utd.

The PSG players protested and the debate rages on but all that United fans care about is that the penalty was expertly and cooly converted by Marcus Rashford. He slammed home his first ever competitive United penalty to send the fans – and his fellow players – into dreamland.

Real Madrid 4-0 Borussia Mönchengladbach – 1985/86 UEFA Cup Third Round

Barcelona’s 6-1 win over PSG made them the first team to ever overcome a four goal deficit from the first leg in Champions League history. It had happened before in the UEFA Cup though and it was Barcelona’s biggest rivals, Real Madrid who pulled it off.

Real were supposed to return from their first leg match against Borussia Mönchengladbach with the tie level at least but were thumped 5-1 in Germany. They’ve never been a team you can write off though and Luis Molowny’s men showed why by winning the second leg 4-0. The Whites made the most of the momentum that win provided by going on to win that season’s UEFA Cup.

Partizan Belgrade 4-0 QPR – 1984/85 UEFA Cup Second Round

Partizan Stadium Exterior
Image: Darwinek, Wikimedia Commons

QPR are another team who have their history with four goal comebacks in European football. Unfortunately for the Rs that history saw them throw away a massive lead from their first leg in their 1984 tie with Partizan Belgrade.

The Loftus Road faithful were delighted with QPR’s performance when winning the first leg 6-2 but those two away goals would prove to be crucial.

Partizan blew the West London side out of the water in the return leg with a 4-0 win on the night enough to see them through. Lightning did not strike twice though as Partizan lost the first leg of the next round 5-0 to Videoton and could only win the second leg 2-0. Maybe they should have started actually trying in those first legs?

Roma 3-0 Barcelona – 2017/18 Champions League Quarter Final

A year after their near miraculous comeback against PSG, Barcelona got a taste of their own medicine. Barca were absolutely wonderful in their first leg against Roma and the bookies almost stopped taking bets on them to qualify for the semi final thanks to a dominant 4-1 win.

That 80th minute goal for Edin Dzeko was not as insignificant as it felt when Luis Suarez scored seven minutes later though. Roma got straight back into the tie when the Bosnian struck on six minutes of the return leg in Rome. Things really got interesting when Daniele De Rossi scored a penalty just before the hour mark. When Kostas Manolas scored the third goal to bring the house down Roma’s attentions turned firmly to defence and they were just about able to keep a late Barcelona charge at bay.

Red Bull Salzburg 4-1 Lazio – 2017/18 Europa League Quarter Final

Lazio have a wealth of European experience compared to the new kids on the nouveau riche block, Red Bull Salzburg. They made all of that experience count with a 4-2 win in Rome in the first leg of their Europa League quarter final. Salzburg were happy enough to have two away goals to play with in the second leg but it appeared that all hope was dashed when Ciro Immobile scored the first goal at the Red Bull Arena on 55 minutes to give Lazio a 5-2 lead and settle the tie in the eyes of most of those watching.

Immobile’s goal ended up having the opposite effect. It sparked Salzburg into life. Nobody present could quite believe what they were seeing as four goals in just 20 minutes secured the tie for the underdogs. This comeback might not quite match some of the others for glamour or importance but four goals in the last 20 is really some comeback!

Deportivo La Coruña 4-0 AC Milan – 2003/04 Champions League Quarter Final

AC Milan went into the 2003/04 Champions League as one of the favourites to win the tournament outright. The Serie A giants showed exactly why so many fancied them for success with a near complete performance in the first leg of their quarter final against Deportivo which they won 4-1.

Just like other ties in this list, just one away goal made all the difference to the shape of the tie. Deportivo knew they still had a chance, no matter how slim, in the return leg and they had no problems taking the game to Milan. Amazingly, Deportivo held the lead in the tie by half time thanks to three early goals and they were unrelenting in the second half to see out a 4-0 win to delight their home fans.

Juventus 3-0 Atletico Madrid – 2018/19 Champions League Round of 16

Atletico Madrid went into the first leg of their recent round of 16 tie with Juventus looking to keep things tight and ensure that Juventus did not score a potentially crucial away goal. They did even better than they’d planned for and took at 2-0 lead to Turin which was enough for them to be strong favourites to qualify. Atleti are renowned for their defensive brilliance under Diego Simeone and few doubted they would shut up shop and see out the game. Cristiano Ronaldo had other ideas.

The Atletico fans gave the former Real Madrid star all sorts of abuse and he lost his cool as he left the Wanda Metropolitano. Ronaldo regained his composure in the second leg though to produce the sort of performance on the big stage that everybody has come to expect, scoring all three goals in a faultless win for the Old Lady. We suspect the result rather eased the pain of the Real fans …

Real Madrid 1-4 Ajax – 2018/19 Champions League Round of 16

In terms of the numbers, Ajax’s comeback against Real Madrid in this season’s Champions League is a long way from some of the other matches in this list. The Dutch side were, after all, only one goal down from the first leg. That only paints a tiny bit of the picture though. Ajax were one goal down from their home leg having conceded two goals at the Amsterdam Arena and were facing the three-time defending Champions League champions.

Almost nobody gave Ajax’s young side a sniff of a chance but they arrived in the Spanish capital believing they could take advantage of Real Madrid’s troubles. That belief proved to be well placed as Ajax were full value for their 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu, a result which saw them through to the quarter finals and hastened the departure of Santiago Solari.