It is March 2017, and Sergi Roberto has just scored for Barcelona to complete a stunning comeback and dump PSG out of the Champions League. Overturning a four-goal deficit felt like one of those rare moments in Champions League history where a team comes from absolutely nowhere to pull off the impossible over two legs, similar to Deportivo La Coruna’s comeback from 4-1 down against AC Milan in 2004.
Fast forward just over two years, however, and that comeback looks staggeringly normal. While Deportivo’s turnaround was clearly a flash in the pan, Barcelona’s instigated a trend of comebacks ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime. Barcelona themselves have been victim to two successive Lazarus like comebacks in Europe, capitulating in Rome last year before bowing out at the hands of Liverpool on Tuesday.
Liverpool’s herculean comeback on Tuesday was the first time a team has ever overturned a three-goal deficit in a Champions League semi-final, while Spurs’ equally admirable effort just 24 hours later was the first time Ajax have ever lost a Champions League game when they had taken the lead.
It is part of a wider theme in Europe of late, and it has never been more apparent than the knock-out stages of this season’s Champions League.
The round of 16 saw a hugely-depleted Manchester United side go to Paris and overturn a two-goal deficit; the first time any team has done so after losing the first leg at home by two goals. Many put that down to the Parisians’ notoriously flaky mentality, but they have by no means been the only team to fall victim to an unlikely comeback.
At the same stage, Ajax went to Real Madrid trailing 2-1 after a defeat in Amsterdam and crushed the Spanish side in the Bernabeu. All of this means that three times have overturned first-leg deficits after falling to defeat at home. To add some perspective, that had happened just twice since 1993 prior to this season’s Champions League.
It’s becoming increasingly apparent that first legs do not carry as much weight as they used to. Setting up a result would have been a hallmark of managers like Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson in the past, but nowadays these first leg results are being made to look more and more irrelevant with each and every ties. The nature of football has also completely changed over the last number of years.
Attacking footballing is far more pertinent than ever before.
It is no coincidence that the three most recent seasons have the highest goal average of any Champions League season, ever. This year may fall just short of the three-goal a game average scaled in the last two seasons, but it is extremely close regardless.
This rise in goals coincides with teams no longer accepting their fate following a humbling loss in the first leg. Barcelona are probably partially to blame for this and have suffered more than anyone since that 6-1 defeat of PSG.
Long gone are the days when an emphatic first-leg defeat would lead to a second leg that simply drifted towards its inevitable conclusion from the offset. There has been a realisation that a big defeat is not terminal anymore, and teams have registered that they can cause more than a few jitters by having a go.
Second legs are becoming increasingly frenzied and these more attacking teams just don’t have the know-how to weather the storm, although even the more experienced teams are struggling. The idea that a Diego Simeone side would squander a two-goal advantage would be laughable mere seasons ago, but they did just that against Juventus.
In all, six teams have thrown away advantages of two goals or more since 2017, while the 22 seasons prior to 2017 saw the same number of two-goal turnarounds. It is all indicative of a mental fragility of teams in seemingly secure positions, as well as a nothing to lose mentality of those in less enviable positions.
The concession of an early goal seems to be a death knell in modern football, and teams seem to accept that a comeback is on the cards as soon as one goal goes in. But this trend of comebacks has not just been limited to individual ties; the group stages have also seen their fair share of resurrections.
For only the second time since the Champions League’s inception, will two teams who failed to win their group contest the final and both Liverpool and Spurs couldn’t have left it any tighter. Liverpool advanced courtesy of goals scored and had Allison to thank for an astonishing save from Arkadiusz Milik in the dying moments of their final group game with Napoli.
Meanwhile Tottenham left it even closer still; picking up just one point from their opening three games before scoring last gasp winners against both PSV and Inter Milan gave them hope. They advanced to the knock-out stages by virtue of Inter’s failure to beat PSV at home in their final group game, coupled with Lucas Moura’s 85th minute equaliser against Barcelona.
Every comeback has been a part of the most compelling Champions League season ever witnessed.
Long may it continue.