During this week’s first legs of the 2019 UEFA Champions League quarterfinals, Europe’s best will play for a semifinal placing in May’s deciding legs. A relentless Juventus will meet the younger side of Ajax, Barcelona hopes to walk over a rebuilding Manchester United, Liverpool was dealt Porto, and Tottenham has to battle it out against Manchester City.
At first glance, the March 15th draw seemed to place the favorites up against smaller teams that fight for the big finishes; these matchups give the impression that a side can smell the semifinals better than the opposition can.
However, it wouldn’t be the first time that the quarterfinals have been the stage of drama and surprise, where the weaker side has been able to bring down the strongest favorites of the year. Most memorably, the 2004 UEFA Champions League season was riddled by a series of surprises, especially in the quarterfinals, when two of the four eventual semifinalists had to overcome overwhelmingly slim odds to chase their European dream.
After February’s Round of 16 matches, the quarterfinals were set for Milan to face Deportivo de La Coruña, Porto to meet Lyon, Real Madrid in front of Monaco, and Chelsea to play Arsenal. The latter was thought to be the most exciting of the four matches, and it actually proved to be an interesting matchup, with a tie in leg one, and a narrow 1-2 on leg two which squeezed Chelsea into the semifinals. Similarly, Porto’s journey against Lyon ended in a home 2-0 win and a 2-2 difficult tie in France, that saw them as semifinalists on aggregate goals.
Despite the amount of scoring and close results in these matches, it was the other two matchups that stole the show, with Monaco stealing a comeback from a historical Real Madrid lineup, and Deportivo pulling off the same stunt (if not a more difficult one) from the reigning champions of Milan.
After the first leg was played in Madrid, the Galacticos were feeling confident about their qualification into the semifinals. Helguera, Zidane, Figo, and Ronaldo took turns at scoring, while the French side was able to match efforts only twice, leaving the home team at a comfortable advantage of 4-2.
Going back to Monaco, the visitors did not expect what the French club was capable of. With Raúl’s confident shot into the left corner of the goal after being served by Ronaldo, the aggregate score was now 5-2, with three goals being just enough and necessary for Monaco to pull off what seemed like an impossible task.
Formerly of Lyon, Ludovic Giuly had been chosen for captaincy due to his fighting spirit that had often gained him goals on the European stage. Monaco had dropped from Ligue 1 competition even before the Round of 16 stage of the Champions League, and the successful European run could be deservedly given to Giuly, who had a knack for non-domestic scoring.
Conveniently, the captain’s services came in handy just in time when he scored twice in addition to Fernando Morientes’s 48th minute header. Madrid’s following attempts were all lost in vain, giving way for a 5-5 result that qualified Monaco due to the away goal rule (they had scored two goals in Madrid as opposed to the one that Real Madrid scored in Monaco).
The feat wrote history for Monaco’s club by pulling off what hadn’t been anticipated due to the imbalance in the team’s talents, names, and recent results. In the Round of 16, Monaco had had to complete a comeback against Lokomotiv Moscow, a team that lacked stellar prowess, making the qualification against a giant like Real Madrid seem practically impossible.
Congruently, Deportivo La Coruña had to overcome an even more difficult task than Monaco’s heroes, having been drawn to play Juventus in the Round of 16, the reigning runner-ups, and Milan in the quarterfinals, the reigning champions. Against Juventus, the Spanish dreamers of Deportivo were able to win both legs, marching towards Milan with confidence, but the Milanisti had different plans.
Uruguayan striker, Walter Pandiani, opened the scoring board early in the match, landing an 11th minute header in Dida’s net, but the 2003 champions couldn’t take that. In the matter of eight minutes, Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko, and Andrea Pirlo scored four goals to seal the result in the 53rd minute and wave away any of Deportivo’s chances to see the semifinals.
The city of Milan was now celebrating another entrance into the semifinals, even though the second leg had yet to be played. Deportivo’s chances were minuscule, considering their lacking of stars and history, wearing a jersey that meant nothing to the world of football, but everything to only the city of La Coruña.
On the April 7 of 2004 match, Walter Pandiani collected an even earlier goal than the one from the first leg to open the match. His fifth minute effort gave hope to the home team, who were now in need of only two more goals to win 4-4 on the away goal rule.
Thirty minutes later, Juan Carlos Valerón continued the scoring with a header that opened a world of chances now for Deportivo, who were just one goal away from possible qualification. Right before the end of the first half, a 44th minute shot by Albert Luque made the task of qualification much easier for Deportivo, scoring the third goal of the match, and the fourth on aggregate, making the dream of being a stage closer to the final true.
It was the 35-year-old midfielder, Fran, who scored on a deviated shot from a difficult angle, to complete an improbable comeback that shocked the world of football. The champions of Milan were frozen by the defensive efforts of center-backs Noureddine Naybet and César, who stopped Kaká, Andriy Shevchenko, Andrea Pirlo, Clarence Seedorf, or any other memorable Milan player from disturbing the Spanish foundations of an incredible story of modern football.
In the current season, Manchester United and Porto are considered the underdogs in their respective quarterfinal matchups. United’s post-Ferguson years have rendered the club into a mid-table team, and against a well-equipped Barcelona, they will have to pull off the improbable to qualify into the semifinals. Similarly, and least probably, Porto looks to surprise against Liverpool, who came into this season as runner-ups that eye the trophy. It would be a football fan’s dream if comebacks were to happen.
For football fans, moments like these make the sport what it is, a showcase of passion whose likes last to the last minute. 2004 was indeed a year of the underdogs, as the semifinals had teams like Porto (won the league), Deportivo, and Monaco (runner-ups), who today are considered mere participants. We look on to hope for another season of the little guys bringing down the giants, to relive these moments of glory that come only once in a lifetime.
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Cover photo: skysports.com