The UEFA Champions League has reached the knockout stage and the delight of two-legged affairs. But which team have delivered the biggest Champions League comebacks in the competition’s history? We look back at some of the competition’s greatest moments.
Paris Saint-Germain vs. Barcelona
2016-17 (Round of 16)
First Leg: Paris Saint-Germain 4-0 Barcelona
Second Leg: Barcelona 6-1 Paris Saint-Germain
It has only happened once in the history of the UEFA Champions League (albeit the fourth time in UEFA club competitions) but the infamous ‘la Remontada’ saw Barcelona overturn a four-goal deficit in their round of 16, second leg against Paris Saint-Germain back in 2017.
The first leg couldn’t have gone more perfectly for PSG. They had lost their previous two knockout phase encounters against Barcelona in the 2012-2013 and 2014-15 seasons but Ángel Di María’s opener from a free-kick was added to by Julian Draxler before half-time. Another exceptional effort from Di María’s continued to put the Ligue 1 side on the way to a big first-leg advantage before Edinson Cavani converted in the 71st minute as Unai Emery’s defensive structure limited Barca to just one shot on target during the match, even if the game was closely matched by expected goals.
Since 1955, there had been 231 European first-legs that finished 4-0. And the losing side had never advanced through. But when Luis Suárez headed Barcelona into the lead on the night, despite Thomas Meunier’s best efforts on the line, the Camp Nou crowd sensed they could be about to see something special although they would only add one more to their tally before the break, courtesy of Layvin Kurzawa’s own goal whilst attempting to clear Andrés Iniesta outrageous attempt.
Three minutes after the restart, Barcelona were awarded a penalty when Neymar was brought down by Meunier – Lionel Messi duly dispatched the resulting spot kick, but PSG were handed a lifeline when Cavani silenced the home crowd. The away goals rule was still active in the Champions League at this time, meaning the Catalans needed to score three more goals if they were to advance into the quarter-finals.
A set-piece double from Neymar, firstly from a free-kick out wide which flew past Kevin Trapp before converting a second penalty of the game for the La Liga side set up a dramatic finale with the Brazilian once again at the heart of their success. His cross into the box eluding everyone but Sergi Roberto with 20 seconds left of the additional five minutes of time added-on to spark wild celebration from Luis Enrique on the bench.
Their run in the UEFA Champions League would come to a halt in the next round against eventual runners-up Juventus. This time they found themselves 3-0 down after the first leg in Turin but there would be no magical comeback on this occasion with a goalless draw at the Camp Nou confirming their exit.
Champions League Comebacks: Three-Goal Turnarounds
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Roma vs. Barcelona
First Leg: Barcelona 4-1 Roma
Second Leg: Roma 3-0 Barcelona
Having missed out on the semi-finals the year before, Barcelona were hoping to go one better in the 2017-18 season – especially with Ernesto Valverde’s side nine points clear at the top of La Liga coming into the first leg against Roma, with eyes on a potential treble as a place in the Copa del Rey final had already been confirmed.
A 4-1 demolition at the Camp Nou came thanks to a duo of own goals from the Italians, as well as Luis Suárez scoring his first Champions League goal of the season with his 31st shot – a complete statistical anomaly considering he had 22 goals in 26 La Liga matches coming into the tie.
Edin Džeko‘s late goal gave Roma some hope, with the Bosnian also getting on the scoresheet just six minutes into second leg to further reduce that deficit, knowing the vital away goal they had scored meant they only needed another two at the Stadio Olimpico to advance.
An abundance of pressure followed with Patrik Schick also going close before club legend Daniele De Rossi converted a spot-kick after Gerard Piqué had bundled Džeko over in the penalty box – his first Champions League goal in over two years.
Roma continued to press for the goal that would see them advance and with eight minutes remaining, it came courtesy of Kostas Manolas, producing one of the most iconic lines of football commentary from the modern era by Peter Drury:
Roma have risen from their ruins! Manolas, the Greek God in Rome! The unthinkable unfolds before our eyes. This was not meant to happen. This could not happen. This IS happening. It’s a Greek from Mount Olympus who has come to the seven hills of Rome and pulled off a miracle.Peter Drury
It ended a 34-year wait for Roma to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup/Champions League – but that dream would again end in the very next round against eventual runners-up Liverpool. But just one year later, the English side would be producing a miracle of their own against Barcelona.
Liverpool vs. Barcelona
First Leg: Barcelona 3-0 Liverpool
Second Leg: Liverpool 4-0 Barcelona
It was all set to be a memorable tie for Barcelona. Luis Suarez netting the 500th goal in the UEFA Champions League for the Catalan giants putting them on the front foot in the home leg, before a Lionel Messi double – the second of which was his 600th goal for the club, 14 years to the day since he scored his first against Albacete in May 2005.
The Reds did come close to grabbing an all-important away goal (as the previous comebacks have shown) but instead it was their six successive defeat in the away leg of a major European semi-final. However, all it really did was set up one of those magical European nights at Anfield.
Divock Origi got the ball rolling on the comeback after just seven minutes, becoming the 50th different player to score in the competition for Liverpool (excluding own goals). But the tie really turned on its head in the space of 122 seconds after the break with a Georginio Wijnaldum double, who was only on the pitch due to an injury to Andy Robertson.
Lionel Messi tried to stem the Liverpool tide, either attempting (five) or creating (three) all eight of Barcelona’s shots in the match. But even the Argentine maestro could do nothing when Trent Alexander-Arnold caught the Catalan defence napping at a corner, allowing Origi to stroke home and send the Kop into wild ecstasy.
Having suffered heartache in the Champions League final the year before, this time Liverpool weren’t to be denied a sixth European Cup/Champions League triumph in just their ninth final, defeating Tottenham Hotspur 2-0. And it’s often assumed that these are the only two times that a side has overturned a three-goal first-leg deficit in the UEFA Champions League, but there is one other.
Deportivo La Coruna vs. Milan
First Leg: Milan 4-1 Deportivo La Coruna
Second Leg: Deportivo La Coruna 4-0 Milan
When Walter Pandiani silenced the San Siro crowd in 2004 after eleven minutes with a header past Dida, it wasn’t just the Deportivo La Coruna faithful who were shocked. This was a Serie A side stacked with talent across the park and eventually Milan would bring themselves level just before the break, courtesy of Kaká.
No doubt a rousing half-time team talk from Carlo Ancelotti was still ringing in their ears when Andriy Shevchenko jinked his way through the La Liga’s side defence to start an onslaught of goals with three coming in opening six second-half minutes – Kaká adding a second from Clarence Seedorf’s pass before Andrea Pirlo’s free-kick seemed to have booked the reigning champions their semi-final spot.
But in the second leg, once again, Pandiani would be the first to strike for Deportivo, this time after just five minutes. Rather than sit back though, they continued to attack and wiped out Milan’s aggregate lead inside the first 43 minutes with further efforts from Juan Carlos Valerón and Albert Luque taking advantage of some slack defending from the likes of Paolo Maldini and Alessandro Nesta.
The aggregate score may have been tied, but the Spanish side had the away goals rule on their side. They continued to press though and got their rewards when Fran took advantage of a mistake by Gennaro Gattuso to complete the comeback and secure their spot in a surprising semi-final line-up that included Chelsea, Monaco and FC Porto, where a certain ‘Special One’ was announcing himself on the intercontinental stage.
Champions League Comebacks: Two-Goal Turnarounds
Over the course of Champions League history, there have been 10 occasions where a side has overturned a two-goal deficit to advance. But only ONE of these was achieved by the away team in the second leg.
Manchester United vs. Paris Saint-Germain
2018-19 (Round of 16)
First Leg: Manchester United 0-2 Paris Saint-Germain
Second Leg: Paris Saint-Germain 1-3 Manchester United
All sorts of records came to an end in the first leg of this tie. Ole Gunnar Solskjær, still the interim manager at this time following José Mourinho’s departure, suffered his first defeat in charge at Manchester United in his 12th game, with it also being their heaviest ever home defeat in any European competition.
Ángel Di María coming back to torment his former side, providing assists for both Presnel Kimpembe and Kylian Mbappé as Paris Saint-Germain became the first French team to beat United at Old Trafford in any European competition.
None of the previous 107 teams to lose a Champions League or European Cup first-leg by two goals or more at home had advanced, but Manchester United got off to the perfect start in the French capital as Romelu Lukaku took advantage of a poor back-pass after two minutes. And even though PSG equalised on the night through Juan Bernat, the Belgian was once again able to restore their lead in the 30th minute.
The Premier League side knew that one more goal would be enough to advance on away goals rule, but the tie looked to be slipping away from them until Kimpembe was adjudged to have handled in the area, after a long VAR break. Marcus Rashford, with his first ever penalty in a competitive game for United, converted the resulting spot kick in the fourth minute of time added-on to complete the remarkable comeback and, arguably, secure the full-time role at United for Solskjær, even if they did crash out in the following round against Barcelona.
There have been other occasions where away teams in the second leg have overturned a one-goal deficit, most recently in the 2018-2019 season with both occasions involved Ajax.
The Dutch side firstly saw off Real Madrid in the round of 16, bouncing back from a 2-1 defeat on home soil in the first leg to record an outstanding 4-1 triumph at the Bernabeu.
However, Ajax weren’t quite so lucky in the semi-finals. They did the hard part, defeating Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 in London, but then slipped to a 3-2 defeat in the second leg with Lucas Moura scoring a 96th minute winner for Spurs.
Those are all great two-legged comebacks, but what about games in the Champions League final itself? We will, briefly, reflect on two such occasions, both involving English sides.
As so often in this article, we head to Camp Nou but not to see Barcelona in action. The year in 1999 and Manchester United are taking on Bayern Munich. The German giants took the lead after just six minutes thanks to Mario Basler’s free-kick and, despite dominating possession throughout the rest of the game, it looked as though as first Champions League trophy would elude Sir Alex Ferguson.
But as the fourth official indicated there would be three minutes to play, and with goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel up for a corner, the ball fell to Teddy Sheringham who swept home and seemingly sent the game into extra-time.
But Man Utd had one more trick up their sleeve as they looked to complete a memorable treble having also secured Premier League and FA Cup success. Another David Beckham corner ending in another goal – this time from Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In reality though, for one of the greatest nights in Europe, we have to turn to Istanbul in 2005. A year after their defeat against Deportivo La Coruna, AC Milan were once again in the Champions League final, this time against Liverpool.
Paolo Maldini gave the Italians the lead with less than a minute on the clock, becoming the oldest scorer in the competition’s history in the process, before a Hernan Crespo double saw them lead 3-0 going into half-time.
Liverpool fought back over the course of seven second-half minutes, with Steven Gerrard, Vladimir Smicer and Xabi Alonso all scoring, even if the Spaniard’s came on the rebound after missing a penalty. The sides couldn’t be separated, even if the Reds would have to be grateful for Jerzy Dudek’s effort in keeping out Andriy Shevchenko’s effort with three minutes left in extra-time.
And the Polish shot-stopper proved his worth in the resulting penalty shootout too, making a hat-trick of saves from Serginho, Andrea Pirlo and, ultimately, Shevchenko’s spot kicks as Liverpool claimed the unlikeliest of trophies.