How Monaco, Atletico Madrid could pull off Champions League comebacks
This week's Champions League semifinals will either be among the dullest in recent memory or perhaps will provide two of the most memorable comebacks in Champions League history. In the semifinal first legs, Juventus won 2-0 at Monaco, while Real Madrid won at home 3-0 versus Atletico Madrid. But what can Monaco and Atletico learn from previous Champions League comebacks?
Lesson 1: Change their system (Liverpool 3-3 Milan, 2005)
The Champions League's most famous comeback took place in the 2005 final in Istanbul. With Milan storming into a seemingly unassailable 3-0 lead by half-time, Liverpool looked down and out, with some players simply encouraging their teammates to avoid a thrashing. But somehow Liverpool launched a quite extraordinary comeback to take it back to 3-3 by the hour mark before eventually triumphing on penalty kicks.
It owed much to Steven Gerrard's brilliance in midfield, but also to a crucial change of formation from manager Rafael Benitez.
In truth, Benitez had made a major error with his team selection, curiously omitting holding midfielder Didier Hamann against a side overloaded with playmakers. Benitez decided to introduce the German for the second half, but equally as important, he switched systems from a 4-4-1-1 to a 3-4-2-1.
This was vital to Liverpool's comeback. They suddenly competed four vs. four in the centre of midfield, with Hamann stopping Kaka from running riot. Liverpool then had a spare man at the back against Milan's front two, and the wing-backs pushed forward to exploit the space on the outside of Milan's narrow diamond.
Lesson 2: Use your substitutes wisely (Man United 2-1 Bayern, 1999)
English clubs have made a habit of unlikely comebacks in finals. Whereas Liverpool's comeback in 2005 was remarkable for coming back from three goals down, Manchester United's against Bayern six years earlier was remarkable for coming back from behind and winning the game in the space of stoppage time.
Notably, the goals came from two super subs. Teddy Sheringham was introduced for Jesper Blomqvist with 25 minutes remaining and went on to turn a deflected Ryan Giggs shot into the net. Next, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer replaced Andy Cole on 80 minutes and converted a Sheringham flick-on inside the far post to record one of the most remarkable Champions League victories imaginable.
The victory also owed much to Sir Alex Ferguson changing his system. With Paul Scholes and Roy Keane suspended, Ferguson had started with David Beckham in the centre of midfield, but United made inroads down the right flank after Beckham was moved to his more customary right-sided midfield role.
But those subs proved crucial. Bayern coped excellently with United's first-choice duo of Cole and Dwight Yorke until fresh legs and a different type of threat proved crucial.
Lesson 3: Take advantage of a raucous home crowd (Deportivo 5-4 Milan, aggregate, 2004)
Milan's collapse against Liverpool wasn't their first embarrassment of this kind. Just over a year earlier, they somehow managed to blow a 4-1 first leg lead when travelling away to La Coruna.
While Deportivo have been bouncing between the top two divisions in Spain the past few years, in 2004 they were among the most dangerous sides in Europe and boasted a hugely impressive home record at the Riazor, the noisy stadium perched on the northwest coast of Spain.
From kickoff, the atmosphere at the Riazor was electric, and Deportivo's players knew they needed the fans at their best. Milan had two early chances, but when Deportivo striker Walter Pandiani spun on the edge of the box and slotted into the bottom corner after five minutes, he instinctively ran toward the crowd and fired them up even more.
The noise of the crowd, combined with the intensity of Deportivo's play, seemed to genuinely trouble Milan. Milan keeper Dida pulled off some magnificent saves, but he flapped at a cross and allowed Juan Carlos Valeron to score a rare header. Next, Albert Luque slammed a shot into the roof of the net, and then substitute Fran scored a deflected effort for the tie-winning goal. The biggest roar, though, came for Deportivo keeper Jose Molina's superb last-minute save to deny Rui Costa.
The fans, as much as the team, earned this victory.
Lesson 4: Concentrate on exploiting the opponent's weakness (Monaco 5-5 Real Madrid, aggregate, 2004)
In one of the most memorable Champions League quarterfinal victories, Monaco trailed 4-2 from the first leg after an eventful defeat in Madrid but rallied and won the tie on away goals. When Raul put Real ahead in the return leg at the Stade Louis II stadium, things look bleak for Monaco, but they battled back admirably, and a key part of their approach involved an on-loan Real player.
Fernando Morientes had been forced out of Real somewhat clumsily by the Real hierarchy and moved to Monaco, who were in the Champions League but weren't considered enough of a problem to insert a clause stating the striker couldn't play against his parent club. Big mistake.
Having scored a late consolation goal in Madrid that effectively meant the tie was still on, Morientes was the most important player in Monaco's second-leg approach. This was a period during which Real were using their "Zidanes y Pavones" approach: It was supposed to mean "world-class Galacticos" and homegrown youngsters" but ended up meaning "exciting attacking players and poor defenders." For the second leg, Real fielded youngster Alvaro Mejia at centre-back.
Morientes sensed a weakness in Real's defence and continually positioned himself up against the youngster, with his towering header eventually bringing the expected reward. Sandwiched between two Ludovic Giuly goals, it was the greatest symbol of where Real had gone wrong.
Lesson 5: Never give up (Barcelona 6-5 PSG, 2017)
It's a barely believable result and a ludicrous turnaround considering the extent to which Barcelona were played off the park in Paris Saint-Germain's 4-0 first-leg victory in Paris. The French champions were absolutely rampant, pressing across the pitch, creating a succession of opportunities, and seemingly sealing their progression to the quarterfinals. Not so.
It was clear that Barcelona had the capability to score and keep the tie alive: Their team is one of the most ruthless attacking machines the game has seen. But they surely couldn't keep a clean sheet against a side that had just smashed four goals past them. And that lack of a clean sheet means they'd be forced to score six goals, a seemingly impossible task.
Barcelona got going early through Luis Suarez's third-minute strike. Game on. An own goal just before half-time gave Barca further belief that they'd be able to force extra time, with Leo Messi's penalty kick five minutes after the break increasing the tension further.
But then PSG striker Edinson Cavani's goal seemingly extinguished all hope. The score remained 5-3 on aggregate going into the final five minutes, with PSG also having the advantage of an away goal.
Then, from nowhere, Barca battled back. PSG wasted counterattacking chances and Neymar took control, scoring in the 88th and 90th minutes before, unbelievably, chipping over the top of the PSG defence to find Sergi Roberto -- one of Barca's villains of the first leg -- for an unthinkable finish in stoppage time.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.