In its current format, the Champions League still offers us a lot of surprising teams which, against all odds, prove the doubters wrong and upset the big European sides. In this piece, we will walk down memory lane looking at some of the most exciting underdogs in this tournament.
AS Monaco 2016/17
Leonardo Jardim’s 2016/17 ‘dream team’ was a joy to watch not only on the European stage but on the domestic scene as well. The club from the small country on the French Riviera had current world-beaters on their side like Fabinho, Bernardo Silva as well as the most expensive player as of right now, Kylian Mbappé. The incredible journey of AS Monaco didn’t start as expected as they were beaten by Fenerbahçe S.K in the first leg of the third qualifying round yet a convincing 3:1 victory in the reverse fixture saw the French club in the 4th pot of Champions League’s group stages. In spite of being one of the worst teams in the entire tournament judging from their coefficient, ‘The Monégasques’ had no real problems topping Group E which had the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Bayer 04 Leverkusen in it. No matter being first, which would mean that they could get an easier opponent, AS Monaco was drawn against the English giants, Manchester City, and most pundits predicted an easy win for ‘The Cityzens’. A 5:3 defeat in the first leg at Etihad Stadium would have probably meant they were right but an ecstatic 3:1 win for Monaco meant the French side went through on away goals. 2 hard-fought victories (2:3; 3:1) against Borussia Dortmund led to Mbappé and Co being amongst the top 4 clubs in that year’s Champions League campaign. Nevertheless, every beautiful story has an end- in this case, the Italian champions Juventus stopped the young and hungry Frenchmen from booking flights to Cardiff.
FC Schalke 04 2010/11
It would be an understatement to say the 2010/11 season offered a mixed bag of emotions for the German side. The 14th position in the league table brought immense disappointment yet winning the DFB-Pokal as well as their Champions League journey could have been the reason for the smiles on the fans’ faces. Players such as Jefferson Farfán, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, and the club legend, Raúl, were the driving force of the team attacking-wise which secured a finish at the top of the group and comfortable wins versus Valencia CF (R16) and Inter Milan (QF). Just when the underdogs of the tournament were flying high in the semi-finals, Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United ousted them in a swift fashion- 0:2 loss in Germany and a humiliating 5:2 defeat at Old Trafford.
FC Porto 2003/04
This Champions League campaign deserves an article on its own. Yet again, despite being one of the worst teams on paper, AS Monaco got to the semi-finals of the prestigious tournament. Deportivo La Coruña also had a season to remember on the European stage but undoubtedly the cherry on the cake was Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto. 16 years ago, the Portuguese specialist was completely new to the game but his arrival at Estádio do Dragão had an immediate impact. Their Champions League road to success started in a tough group featuring the most successful team in the competition, Real Madrid, the French powerhouse, Olympique de Marseille, and FK Partizan. ‘Los Blancos’ finished 1st meaning that FC Porto was basically thrown to the lions as they had to face the insurmountable team of Manchester United. However, anything is possible, and Jose Mourinho proved that- 2:1 home victory and 1:1 draw in England sent the Portuguese side right into the quarter-finals. Olympique Lyonnais were waiting there but just like ‘The Red Devils’ they weren’t able to come out on top against Porto- Jose’s team had a 2-goal cushion going into the second leg and despite drawing 2:2 in France, the advantage gained at Estádio do Dragão was invaluable. The semi-finals saw the Portuguese team come up against another feel-good story of this campaign- the above-mentioned Deportivo La Coruña. The evenly matched teams were separated by just one penalty converted by Derlei in the second leg. The grand final couldn’t have been more unpredictable- the European hegemons such as AC Milan, Real Madrid, Manchester United, Bayern Munich, etc. were nowhere to be seen but instead AS Monaco and FC Porto had to decide the winner of the ‘Old Big Ears Trophy’. The fairy tale couldn’t have finished better for Jose Mourinho and his boys- a classic 3:0 victory put Porto on the very top of the footballing ladder for the 2nd time in the club’s history.
Atalanta BC 2019/20
The memory of Atalanta’s participation in this year’s Champions League is still fresh in football fans’ minds. The team from Bergamo was regarded as the second-worst team in the competition as their coefficient (14.945) was only higher than LOSC Lille’s (11.699). The problems for Atalanta started from the group stages as they encountered 3 consecutive losses and 1 draw in their first 4 matches. Only a miracle should have happened if ‘The Goddess’ was to progress through the Round of 16… and it did! 2 wins in the last 2 matches and favourable results in the other games meant Gasperini’s team finished just a point above Shakhtar Donetsk. In the next round, Atalanta was up against Valencia CF which felt in a better position as they managed to get the better of Chelsea and AFC Ajax. Nevertheless, a 4:1 win for the Italian side and a one-man Iličić show in the reverse 3:4 fixture gave a chance to Atalanta to participate in the quarter-finals of a European competition for the first time in 26 years. A 3-month pause changed the initial structure of the Champions League as the winner of the tie was decided by one match on neutral ground. Atalanta was drawn against Paris Saint-Germain and everything was looking good for the Italian underdogs but the tables have turned in the dying minutes of the game as PSG scored 2 goals within 149 seconds, eliminating ‘The Goddess’ and putting an end to their fairy tale.
Borussia Dortmund 2012/13
Before taking over Liverpool and cementing himself as arguably one of the best managers in the world, Jürgen Klopp had a long way to go in which he relieved some memorable moments- promoting FSV Mainz 05 to the Bundesliga and winning 2 consecutive domestic titles with Borussia Dortmund were some of those. What’s more, his 2012/13 Champions League journey is one of his proudest seasons as a manager. Just like most of the teams in this piece, Borussia was seeded in 4th pot with practically no chance of progressing through yet they came out on top without losing a single game versus the renowned Real Madrid, English powerhouse, Manchester City, and consistently well-performing AFC Ajax. The first challenge on the road to the final was Shakhtar Donetsk which tried their very best in the first tie (2:2 at home) but struggled to cope with the German side at Signal Iduna Park (3:0). The next opponent was another underdog, which was massively overachieving- Málaga CF. The first match offered a goalless draw in Spain just because the best was saved for the clash in Dortmund- a thrilling 3:2 victory for ‘The Black and Yellows’, which was achieved by two dramatic goals in 91st and 93rd minute. In the semi-finals, Real Madrid had a chance to set the record straight against Jürgen Klopp and his boys. However, being the lethal striker Robert Lewandowski is, the Polish star was a one-man show in the first leg, scoring all four goals in a 4:1 win. That turned out to be just about enough as ‘Los Blancos’ scored only 2 goals in the reverse fixture. The ‘most expensive match’ for 2013 featured Borussia Dortmund and their fierce German rivals, Bayern Munich. A moment of brilliance from Arjen Robben was what separated the two sides in a 1:2 victory for ‘The Bavarians’.
Bonus: RB Leipzig 2019/20
Unlike the other stories here, the journey of the 33-year-old Julian Nagelsmann and the 11-year-old RB Leipzig is not over yet. The German side is flying high even though, as you would already expect, were in 4th pot. However, the group they were drawn in was a relatively easy one and they managed to come out on top with 11 points. Tottenham Hotspur were awaiting them in the Round of 16 with Jose Mourinho as their manager yet his magic was no longer a thing and RB Leipzig prevailed in both matches- 0:1 away and 3:0 in Germany. Last night, Atletico Madrid were also beaten by the German side in a 2:1 single match due to the global pandemic and packed schedule. We are still eagerly waiting for the semi-final between Paris Saint-Germain and Julian Nagelsmann’s boys.