Fairy-tale runs: Meet the Champions League's ultimate surprise packages
Monday, 30 January 2023
Which sides have fought most impressively above their weight in the UEFA Champions League?
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Eintracht Frankfurt have made it to the round of 16 in their first campaign in the UEFA Champions League, while Club Brugge have overcome the odds to join them in the first knockout round.
See which other teams have punched above their weight in 21st-century Champions League campaigns.
2000/01: Leeds United
"Mostly it was a group of young lads who had come up from the academy," remembered left-back Ian Harte of the unheralded side that reached the semi-finals of both the 1999/2000 UEFA Cup and the following season's UEFA Champions League, coming through two group stages and a quarter-final before being eliminated by Valencia. Of that class of 2000/01, Harry Kewell (Liverpool, 2005) and Rio Ferdinand (Man United, 2008) would both go on to win the trophy with other clubs.
2003/04: Deportivo, Monaco
In a topsy-turvy campaign, Javier Irureta's Deportivo made it to the semis (famously eliminating Milan after losing the first leg of their quarter-final 4-1) despite suffering a record 8-3 loss to Monaco during the group stage. Monaco were destined to go even further under the guidance of Didier Deschamps, on-loan striker Fernando Morientes' goals taking the previous season's French league runners-up all the way to the final, only to find José Mourinho's indubitably special Porto side in formidable form.
Eliminated in all eight of their previous group stage campaigns, 1988 European champions PSV came good under Guus Hiddink, making it from the third qualifying round to the semi-finals despite losing some key players in the summer transfer window. They came agonisingly close to beating Milan, losing out only on away goals following a 3-1 win in Eindhoven. "We have done well to promote Dutch football and in Europe we are now getting a lot of respect," said the coach.
From a modest town outside Valencia, the Yellow Submarine showed grit aplenty in their first Champions League season, twice holding Man United in the group stage and then beating Rangers and Inter (both on away goals) to set up a semi-final encounter with Arsenal, where a Jens Lehmann save from a late Juan Román Riquelme penalty preserved a 1-0 aggregate win for the Gunners. "This is not a miracle," insisted coach Manuel Pellegrini. "It is based on work and conviction."
Under Felix Magath – and then Ralf Rangnick – the Gelsenkirchen side had a tough time in the 2010/11 Bundesliga, but sparkled in all other competitions, winning the German Cup and reaching the Champions League semis, thanks in part to Raúl González, signed from Real Madrid. "When Raúl stood in front of me, I couldn't talk," said Julian Draxler of his awe at playing alongside the three-time Champions League-winner in that side. "I'm enjoying myself like a little boy," said Raúl.
The Nicosia club's achievement in getting to the quarter-finals was stunning given their relative standing in European football. The first Cypriot side to reach the last 16, Ivan Jovanović's men got the better of Lyon on penalties in the round of 16, goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis telling UEFA.com: "We've achieved something no one would have thought possible at the start of the season." Beating Real Madrid in the next round, however, was to prove one miracle too far.
2012/13: Galatasaray, Málaga
After losing their first two group stage games, Galatasaray were powered to the knockout stage by Burak Yilmaz's goals. They won in Gelsenkirchen to eliminate Schalke in the round of 16, but could not find a way past Real Madrid in the last eight. Meanwhile, Champions League debutants Málaga made the most of their opportunity, topping their group ahead of Milan and beating Porto in their first knockout tie before bowing to Dortmund. Midfield star Isco left for Madrid at the end of the season.
Back in France after loan spells with Man United and Chelsea, Radamel Falcao showed his class once more as the Monegasques once more punched above their weight (and won the French title). Leonardo Jardim's team came through two qualifying rounds, won their group then beat Man City after a 6-6 aggregate draw in the last 16, before getting the better of Dortmund and finally coming unstuck against Juventus in the semis. "It's a competition that means a lot to us," Jardim said.
Ajax were three-time European champions in the 1970s, and took the Champions League crown in 1994/95, but more recently struggled to keep players amid competition from wealthier clubs. However, Erik ten Hag got the very best out of a superb crop of homegrown youngsters, plus experienced forwards Dušan Tadić and Klaas-Jan Huntelaar. They made it to the semis for the first time in a generation, eliminating Real Madrid and Juventus before going out to Spurs.
Seventh in the Liga the previous season, Villarreal qualified by beating Man United in the mammoth 2021 Europa League final penalty shoot-out. Paired with the Red Devils again in the group stage, they lost twice but still qualified for the knock-out phase as runners-up, going on to eliminate Juventus and then Bayern ("We were perfect in defence," purred coach Unai Emery). However, Liverpool beat proved too strong for them in the semi-finals, winning 5-2 over two legs.