The UEFA Champions League trophy
The semi-final stage of the The Champions League is upon us and some of the usual contenders are, again, here. Real Madrid, Liverpool and Manchester City – all Champions League finalists in the past four years – make up three of the four semi-finalists. The fourth spot is certainly a surprise club. But after beating both Bayern Munich and Juventus en route to this stage, it is a fully justified position.
Villarreal under Unai Emery have certainly had a difficult run in this Champions League campaign. In a group containing Manchester United and free scoring Serie A club Atalanta, they finished a comfortable second. Juventus in the last-16 seemed to be the end of the run for Villarreal but a four-one aggregate win made everybody take notice.
A first-leg one-nil victory over Bayern in the quarters didn’t justify how well Villareal played. And after 90 minutes of backs-to-the-wall defending against Robert Lewandowski and Co., The Yellow Submarines snatched a 1-1 draw in the second leg to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League for only the second time in their history.
The underdog story is always adored by neutrals. Such stories rise up every so often. We’re looking at five such clubs whose exciting, surprising runs in the Champions League grabbed the attention of football fans over the last 20 years or so.
PSV Eindhoven – 2004-05 Champions League
Massimo Ambrosinio of AC Milan consoles Jefferson Farfan of PSV Eindhoven following the 2005 UEFA Champions League Semi Final, 2nd Leg
In 2005, PSV Eindhoven reached the semi-finals of the Champions League, although their run wasn’t the most difficult. Or at least it didn’t look so on paper. They finished second in the group behind Arsenal, ahead of Rosenberg and Panathiniakos, and went on to beat AS Monaco three-nil in the last-16.
Then came another French club, this time Lyon, who were French champions for seven years running through this period and had just defeated German champions Werder Bremen 10-2 over two legs in the previous round. The Dutch club advanced via penalties after a 1-1 draw both home and away.
The Lightbulbs would go on to face Champions League royalty AC Milan in the semi-finals, where a Massimo Ambrosini goal in added time in the second leg sent the Italians through to the final in Istanbul. But PSV had left their mark on the footballing world with their exciting play and wonderful players.
As with a lot of Dutch clubs, PSV had a team of brilliant players that weren’t yet household names. Park Ji-Sung and Lee Young-Pyo followed manager Guus Hiddink from his spell managing the South Korean national team and went on to have great careers in the Premier League.
Goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, along with the whole of PSV’s backline – Alex, Wilfred Bouma and the aforementioned Lee – all produced admirably in the EPL for different clubs. The midfield trio of Mark van Bommel, Phillip Cocu and Johann Vogel all spent time at various European giants. Cocu returned to PSV after six seasons at Barcelona. Van Bommel played for Barcelona himself, as well as AC Milan and Bayern Munich. Vogel moved to AC Milan that summer.
Add all these players together, with exciting winger Jefferson Farfan and the ridiculously long-named Jan Vennegoor of Hesselink, and you can understand why they were the neutral favorites in this Champions League campaign.
Villarreal – 2005-06 Champions League
No, not the 2022 Champions League Villarreal. They reached the semis of the Champions League in 2006, where they lost to Arsenal in unfortunate fashion.
They started the campaign by winning a group containing Manchester United, Benfica and Lille. They then defeated Scottish giants Rangers in the last-16 on away goals and subsequently overcame mighty Inter Milan in the same way.
Villarreal was a team with little Champions League experience – a group of hardened professionals who gave everything for manager Manuel Pellegrini. Except of course for the immensely talented Juan Roman Riquelme and the constant goalscorer Diego Forlan. But with the long-haired Argentina captain Juan Pablo Sorin on one side of Riquelme and the underappreciated Marcos Senna on the other, the Yellow Submarines were a force to be reckoned with.
The thing that grabbed the attention of football fans with this club was the size of it. The town’s population would fit into the stadiums of most Champions League clubs, with just over 50,000 people in Villarreal. It offered a sense of pride to fans of other clubs that such upsets were possible. The fact that they have repeated this feat this season offers even more hope.
UEFA Champions League Semi Final – Villarreal v Arsenal
Ajax – 2018-19 Champions League
Ajax came into the 2018-19 Champions league campaign with two players from the Premier League in Dusan Tadic and Daley Blind. As well as an aging Klass-Jan Huntelaar. The rest of the team was made up of youngsters that weren’t at the tip of many football fans’ tongues. But this is something that people tend to overlook when it comes to Dutch clubs. They have immense talent in their youth and a cycle of brilliant players constantly break out and are inevitably sold to bigger clubs.
The Amsterdam club were certainly made to work hard in their Champions League campaign. Yet they went undefeated in a group containing German powerhouse Bayern Munich, as well as Benfica and AEK Athens. The difficulty didn’t end there as Ajax were rewarded with a last-16 tie against the winners of the previous three Champions league tournaments, Real Madrid.
After a two-one defeat at home against the Spanish club, the odds were stacked against Ajax. But a 4-1 win at the Santiago Bernabeu showed their class. Taking a three-goal lead thanks to Tadic, David Neres and Hakim Ziyech. This brought a mouthwatering tie against Juventus in the quarter-finals.
Ajax once again played the first-leg at home and were held to a 1-1 draw by the Old Lady of Turin. Neres was on the scoresheet again, equalizing after Cristiano Ronaldo put Massimo Allegri’s men ahead. The second leg in Italy once again looked like a step too far for Ajax, especially after Ronaldo netted his second goal of the tie and put Ajax to the sword.
Erik ten Hag’s men again rallied and goals from Donny van de Beek and 20-year-old captain Matthijs de Ligt put them ahead for the first time in the tie. They held on and went on to face Tottenham Hotspur in their first Champions League semi-final since 1997.
Ajax v Tottenham Hotspur – UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg
Ajax once again showed their prowess away from home, taking a 1-0 lead in the first leg at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium thanks to a van de Beek strike 15 minutes in. The Champions League final beckoned when the Dutch giants went two goals up in the first half of the second leg at home. But, as with the other semi-final between Barcelona and Liverpool in the 2018-19 season, a comeback was on the cards. Spurs attacker Lucas Moura hit a second-half hat-trick, including a 96th-minute winner, which made it an all-English final for the Lilywhites.
As usual, Ajax were picked apart in the transfer window, with de Ligt, Donny van de Beek, Frenkie de Jong and Hakim Ziyech all moving to big clubs for big sums. But the memories stayed on and Ajax helped remind everyone how exciting the Total Football mentality was.
Monaco – 2016-17 Champions League
The AS Monaco team that entertained all the way to the Champions League semi-finals in 2016-17 may now look like an array of stars. Except for Radamel Falcao and Joao Moutinho, they weren’t the names they are now. Kylian Mbappe was an exciting prospect, but that was it.
Monaco topped an evenly contested group, with Bayer Leverkusen joining them in the knockout stages at the expense of Tottenham Hotspur and CSKA Moscow. Topping the group led to a very difficult last-16 draw against Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City.
Monaco more than held their own in a thrilling 5-3 defeat to the well-fancied English side in the first leg. With Falcao and Mbappe giving them a great chance to get to the quarters. Monaco progressed after a thrilling 3-1 victory in the second leg, with Mbappe scoring again, alongside Fabinho and Tiemoue Bakayoko.
The quarter-finals brought the black and yellow of Borussia Dortmund, who saw off Benfica in the previous round. Monaco continued their gung-ho style and came away from the Westfalenstadion with a 3-2 victory. Again, a brace from French wonderkid Kylian Mbappe sent them on their way.
The return leg went pretty much the same way. Falcao and Valere Germain joined Mbappe on the scoresheet in a 3-1 (6-3 aggregate) win. The semi-finals beckoned and a clash with Barcelona-conquerors Juventus awaited Monaco. The neutrals were excited to see more of the fearless ways of Monaco, but it seemed a step too far for the French club.
Juventus showed their experience and kept Monaco at bay. A 4-1 aggregate win for the Italian giants ended the unlikely run of Leonardo Jardim’s men. The inevitable happened and over the upcoming transfer window, Monaco suffered an almost complete exodus of their stars. Mbappe, Falcao (on loan), Bakayoko, Fabinho, Bernando Silva and Moutinho all left. The Red and Whites were left to rue a genuine chance to reach their first final since 2004.
Manchester City FC v AS Monaco – UEFA Champions League Round of 16: First Leg
Borussia Dortmund – 2012-13 Champions League
It’s hard to comprehend hearing that Borussia Dortmund were the underdogs a season after winning the Bundesliga. Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund were placed in the Group of Death in the 2012-13 season of the Champions League. They topped a group containing Real Madrid, Ajax and Manchester City – a feat they achieved by going unbeaten. Their last-16 draw seemed favorable, too. A talent-filled Shakhtar Donetsk gave neutrals hope of an exciting matchup, but one which Dortmund would overcome.
This is exactly how it happened, a 2-2 draw in Ukraine, thanks to a late Mats Hummels equalizer. The return leg in Dortmund was more plain sailing with a 3-0 win sealing an emphatic aggregate win. Mario Gotze, Jakub Blaszczykowski and Felipe Santana were on the scoresheet.
The quarter-finals against a Malaga side enriched with talent, including the likes of Julio Baptista, Javier Saviola, Isco, Joaquin and Jeremy Toulalan, was bound to cause problems. A nervy goalless draw at La Rosaleda set up an exciting second leg at home.
Joaquin put the visitors ahead with an away goal, and this forced Dortmund to push for two goals. One came just before half-time, thanks to Robert Lewandowski. The match seemed to be over when Malaga retook the lead in the 82nd minute, but with Dortmund needing two goals Jurgen Klopp pushed his team forward. A Marco Reus goal in the 91st minute caused a frantic finish. Felipe Santana won the match and the tie with a controversial winner right at the death.
Real Madrid v Borussia Dortmund – UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg
Santana’s winner set up a mouth-watering semi-final against Real Madrid. Dortmund started the semi-final first leg on the front foot and took the lead at the Signal Iduna Park in the eighth minute thanks again to Lewandowski. Although Cristiano Ronaldo equalized, Dortmund’s Polish star wasn’t done. Lewandowski scored another three goals in the second half to take a 4-1 lead to Madrid.
The second leg seemed a bit pointless, and it looked to be going the way Dortmund would have liked, holding Real Madrid to 0-0 until two quick goals in the 83rd and 88th minutes from Karim Benzema and Sergio Ramos made the Germans sweat. Another goal for Real Madrid would have seen the Spanish giants through. However, Klopp’s men held on to set up an all-Germal final against Bayern Munich.
We all know how that final went. Bayern Munich triumphed 2-1, courtesy of a late Arjen Robben winner. Borussia Dortmund couldn’t lift the trophy, but they remain in the hearts of neutral football fans to this day.