A Retrospective: The Greatest UCL Knockout Ties in History

The UEFA Champions League knockout stages for the 2022/23 season are well underway and many fascinating and dramatic ties surely await in the remainder of the campaign. The history of the competition shows the importance of reputation in the knockout stage, and some teams have the ability to deliver the unthinkable on a consistent basis.

A handful of teams are well known for being serial winners of the competition, due to their ability to win ties from any position on the path to glory. And some are known for producing elevated performances that defy explanation and spark heroic upsets.

There could be a new winner this year

Many teams are genuine competitors in this year’s edition of the UCL. Some teams are bidding to secure a maiden success in Europe’s premier club competition and others are looking to add to a lengthy list of prior successes. In football betting, Manchester City are the favourites to win the competition as of 14th March at odds of 9/4. Pep Guardiola’s side is yet to achieve victory in the UCL and has suffered dramatic collapses in the past few years as the pressure of triumphing for the first time got the better of the City squad. 

The likes of Bayern Munich closely trail Guardiola’s side in the odds at 11/4 to win the competition and precedence certainly suggests that historical pedigree in the competition is vital to future success as well as the quality on the pitch. A select group of teams tend to play their greatest football in the UCL and have a huge catalogue of famous nights in the competition. What were some of the most exciting occasions on which the European elite have faced off?

Liverpool vs FC Barcelona – 2018/19

Two European heavyweights faced off in the semi-final of the 2018/19 competition. Both teams already had five UCL titles to their name and were bidding for a place in the final for the chance to extend their records to six. In the first leg at Camp Nou Barcelona played out a convincing 3-0 victory in front of their home support; the second leg was where the magic happened. Going into the fixture Barca may have felt they already had one foot in the final in Madrid, but possessing that level of complacency is a huge mistake against any elite European outfit. Especially when Barca has an extended personal catalogue of humiliating defeats in the competition. 

Minutes into the second leg at Anfield, Liverpool had one back through Divock Origi and the tie suddenly seemed far from sealed for Barcelona. Georginio Wijnaldum added a quick-fire brace in the second half to level the tie and it seemed inevitable that the home side would find a winner as Barcelona struggled to form any sort of counter to Liverpool’s constant pressure. The winner came from Origi netting his second of the game and Liverpool advanced to the final where they won their sixth European Cup. Jurgen Klopp’s team presented a modern example of the European elite never accepting that they are beaten – they produced a comeback nobody ever thought they could which led to eventual glory. 

FC Porto vs Manchester United – 2003/04

Comebacks in the knockout stages of the competition offer a stunning spectacle every time they occur. What makes a comeback more impressive is when a relative minnow of the European game manages to inflict defeat on a top European side. FC Porto’s entire run to their remarkable UCL triumph in 2004 was filled with shocks. Their knockout path continued with the biggest surprise of all.

Porto managed a narrow win in the first leg helped by Roy Keane’s dismissal, but the dramatics came in the latter leg of the tie. United took the lead early at Old Trafford through Paul Scholes which gave them a temporary away goal advantage. Costinha scored the winner when Tim Howard could only parry Benni McCarthy’s freekick. The raw talent of Porto was too much for a United team that contained many players entering the latter end of their careers. The game was significant not only for the drama it entailed, but it represented the first huge European step of Jose Mourinho’s career. In terms of playing staff, the game was the making of many future legends of the European game such as Deco and Ricardo Carvalho.

The UCL always promises intense knockout ties year in, and year out. For many, it represents the peak of club football, and so it is little surprise that it offers the highest level of live football entertainment. With unthinkable comebacks and shock upsets, Europe’s leading competition has it all, and we will likely have more stories to tell after the conclusion of this year’s campaign. 

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