By Panos Bletsos
From the Barcelonas to the APOELs, from the rich and famous to the proud and hopefuls of this world, all sides competing in Europe, either overwhelming favourites or massive underdogs, share the same dream: making it all the way. Some will say it out loud, others would never dare to, but they all know that they have to get to the final first. And that’s easier said than done.
Some of the continent’s traditional powerhouses are fighting it out against each other these days with European glory at their sights. With the exception of a couple of seasons in the early ‘90s, as the Champions Cup evolved into the Champions League and no semifinals took place, UEFA competitions have offered some truly unforgettable ties in the last four stages.
Highs and Lows
OK, the 1971-’72 European Cup semis were not remembered for attacking football, as the likes of Ajax, Benfica, Internazionale and Celtic only managed a single goal between them. That solitary strike by Sjaak Swart, nicknamed “Mister Ajax” as the club’s appearance record holder, helped the Dutch past the Portuguese to the Rotterdam final, while the Italians and the Scots played out more than 210 unfruitful minutes of football before the Milan giants eventually squeezed through 5-4 on penalties.
Ajax went on to hoist the cup with a 2-0 win over Internazionale in the final. Johan Cruyff scored a brace in that match.
Green Scottish hearts were broken that evening but twelve years earlier it was the blue side of Scotland, Rangers, feeling down. With Glasgow set to stage the final, Rangers’ hopes of lining up at Hampden Park were dashed against Eintracht Frankfurt. A total of 16 goals were scored over the two legs, but it was the West Germans who struck 12 of them, six in each game – that is before conceding seven themselves at the hands of Real Madrid in their only Champions Cup final outing.
Europe’s top club competition has had its share of controversy in the last four on at least two occasions. At the business end of the ’89-’90 campaign, Bernard Tapie’s star-studded Marseille traveled to Lisbon after securing a come-back 2-1 first-leg win over Benfica. A draw would be good enough to see Marseille through, but eight minutes from time a largely unknown Angolan striker named Vata scored with his right arm and sent the Benfiquistas to Vienna instead of the French on the away goals rule.
Benfica did not find similar fortune in the final losing 1-0 to A.C. Milan. Frank Rijkaard scored the lone goal in that match.
Olympique eventually clinched the coveted trophy three years later while the Portuguese giants are still waiting for their next final appearance.
Of course Vata’a goal should never have stood, but at least the ball did cross the line. Whether that was the case at Anfield on May 3, 2005 is still in dispute. Following a goalless stalemate at Stamford Bridge Luis García side-footed the ball past Chelsea’s Petr Čech and sent Liverpool to the Istanbul final despite William Gallas’ effort as Slovakian Ľuboš Micheľ, one of the best referees in the world at the time, gave the goal after consulting with his assistant, Roman Slyško.
Liverpool completed a heroic comeback in the final erasing a 3 goal first half deficit to defeat A.C. Milan 3-2 in penalties.
There was even more drama on the very next day in the other semifinal. Trailing 2-0 from the first leg in Italy, a brave PSV Eindhoven brought the tie against Milan level on aggregate before Massimo Ambrosini netted his only Champions League goal of the season a minute into added time. Philip Cocu, now PSV’s head coach, made it 3-1 immediately afterwards, but it was too little, too late for the Dutch.
And it didn’t get any better for their compatriots in the UEFA Cup either. Just 24 hours later AZ sent the second leg of their tie against Sporting Lisbon into extra-time and a rare Kew Jaliens goal made it 3-1 on 109 minutes. But the Portuguese had no intention of missing out on the final taking place at their own José Alvalade ground and two minutes into the extra-time’s injury time (!) right back Miguel Garcia headed in his only ever goal for the Lions to see them through.
Sporting, however, could not win on their home field dropping the final to CSKA Moscow 3-1.
Back in 1991, a year before the term “Champions League” was even used for the first time, it was another defender who netted a last-gasp semifinal decider – albeit at the wrong end. The best Red Star side in the club’s history had beaten the mighty Bayern Munich 2-1 in their own backyard and were also leading in Belgrade up until the 65th minute. Led by Jupp Heynckes, just like today, the Germans fought back and made it three-all on aggregate when disaster struck right at the death: legendary captain Klaus Augenthaler, who’d made it 1-1 earlier, totally miskicked a cross past a hapless Raimond Aumann. Two-two and Bayern were out.
Red Star went on to win the title on penalties against Marseille after the regular and exra time ended 0-0 at Stadio San Nicola.
Break a Leg
However unfortunate, own goals are an integral part of football and may well decide a game, no matter its importance. But tossing a coin? Yes, that’s how Górnik Zabrze reached the 1970 European Cup Winners’ Cup final – and at the expense of A.S. Roma on the losing side of the coin toss. Playing in the nearby city of Chorzów Włodek Lubański converted a 90th – minute penalty (Fabio Capello had done the same for the Italians early on) and forced extra-time, since the first leg had also ended 1-1. Poland’s all-time leading scorer turned the game on its head shortly after the restart before Francesco Scaratti equalized to 2-2 right at the end, but for some reason the ref did not apply the away-goals rule, although it had already been introduced by UEFA. A play-off in neutral Strasbourg also ended level (1-1) and Górnik progressed to the Cup Winners’ Cup endgame on a coin toss!
Górnik did not reach a coin toss in the final losing 2-1 to Manchester City in regulation time.
Surely no semifinal could get any more dramatic than that, could it? Yes, it could – and it did in the 1994-’95 version of the same competition. Thanks to two goals from Steve Bould (the hard-tackling centre-back only netted eight across his 375 club outings) holders Arsenal beat Sampdoria 3-2 at Highbury, before going down by the same score in Genoa. Stefan Schwarz sent the tie into a fruitless extra-time, before David Seaman saved Attilio Lombardo’s effort to send the Londoners through to a second consecutive final on penalty kicks – which, by the way, also ended 3-2.
Arsenal dropped the final in extra time when Real Zaragoza’s Nayim scored a 119th minute winner.
Everyone remembers the ’98-’99 Champions League for perhaps the greatest come-back of them all in the Barcelona final. But it was probably what we all should have expected after what had happened in the most spectacular semifinal phase in the competition’s history. Bayern Munich came from 2-0 and 3-1 down to land a three-all draw in Kiev, Austrian centre-forward Carsten Jancker grabbing the all-important 88th – minute equalizer, and followed that up with a 1-0 home win over Dynamo to progress. At the same time Manchester United showed Juventus that it’s not over until the fat lady sings – a hard lesson taught twice. Two minutes into added time at “Old Trafford” Ryan Giggs kept English hopes alive (1-1), before a stunning three-goal revival in Turin cancelled out Pippo Inzaghi’s early brace (2-3). Fat lady, did I say? No offense, but wasn’t Montserrat Caballé born in Barcelona?
Manchester United of course went on to score 2 goals in extra time to deny Bayern Munich what everyone thought was a done deal in the 90th minute.
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