UEFA Champions League
It's a knockout
For nail-biting, heart-stopping drama, nothing beats the blistering back and forth of a Champions League knockout tie. As this season’s competition gets down to business, Graham Hunter salutes the thrills and spills of a few epic floodlit nights

This is an excerpt from Champions Journal. Take a look at issue 18 for a trip down memory lane reliving some of the most iconic knockout ties in European football, interviews with Lamine Yamal and Carlo Ancelotti, a celebration of Franz Beckenbauer’s life and lots more.

This article was first published in Champions Journal – read the full piece here.

WORDS Graham Hunter, Sheridan Bird, Hendrik Buchheister, Chris Burke, Vieri Capretta, Simon Hart, Andrew Haslam, Paul Mcnamara, Paolo Menicucci, Aaryan Parasnis

You’ve chosen a match to watch – it could be kids on a muddy pitch at the local ‘rec’, or a semi-pro team when your own beloved club is playing away from home. Perhaps you’ve got your feet up in front of the TV at home, or you’re craning your neck to watch down the pub. If you’re really lucky, you might even be a face in the crowd at a major foreign stadium you’ve always wanted to visit. Wherever. 

Within a couple of minutes, there’s flair, a goal chance, intensity, and your brain is sending you a tidal wave of endorphins as a phrase echoes around your head: “Chose a good one here... This is going to be fun!” 

Metaphorically, that’s exactly how it has been across the last 69 years since the Champions League, launched as the European Cup, staged its first knockout match: a roller-coaster 3-3 draw between Sporting CP and Partizan in which the Lisbon hosts twice pulled back from a goal down, despite João Golaz’s 50th-minute red card. Adding to the manic energy of the occasion, the visitors were effectively down to ten as well, Branko Zebec having suffered an early injury in an era before substitutes. 

"These continental jousts are addictive, impassioned, unpredictable and simply wonderful."

The template had been set. From the word go, this effervescent, irrepressible tournament showed how continental knockout football was going to grip our emotions in perpetuity. The European Cup had been born, taken baby steps, and what those 30,000 pioneering fans discovered that day at the Estádio Nacional, the rest of us would eventually learn for ourselves: that these continental jousts are addictive, impassioned, unpredictable and simply wonderful.

Within weeks, AC Milan had lost 4-3 to Saarbrücken at the San Siro, before winning 4-1 away to progress – the long tradition of seesaw ties had begun. Even inaugural European Cup winners Real Madrid had to endure their 4-0 lead in the quarter-finals being nail-bitingly eroded in Belgrade, where Partizan’s 3-0 win left them just one goal shy of taking the tie to a third, deciding match. 

From the outset, the knockout ties in Europe’s ‘I’ll show you who’s best’ tournament looked and felt like they were directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But there’s a pretty fair chance most of you weren’t born back then, and this isn’t a chronological history of the European Cup – simply a love letter to some of the most impactful ties this competition has produced. Moments seared in my mind which, one way or another, forever sealed my adoration for continental football and its unofficial mantra: ‘Me or you... only one of us gets through.’

Ronaldo runs riot 

Quarter-finals, 2002/03 

Real Madrid 3-1 Man United
Man United 4-3 Real Madrid 
(5-6 Agg) 

The denouement of this tie featured one of the game’s greats displaying his otherworldly gifts on British shores. Both teams went for it over the 180 minutes, but the lasting image is of Ronaldo leaving the Old Trafford pitch to a standing ovation after his second-leg hat-trick, the Brazilian having mesmerised a rearguard including the world’s most expensive defender, Rio Ferdinand. The first match had yielded a classy 3-1 victory for the Galácticos, yet it was a lot closer in England. Although United edged it 4-3 on the night, Ronaldo’s imperious treble (featuring two thunderous strikes) showed how a truly deadly striker can drag their team out of trouble. The praise was richly deserved, and that shot of him departing for the bench in Madrid’s menacing black away strip became an instant classic. “Being applauded off by the United fans was a unique and very special moment for me,” said the man himself. 

Barcelona's remontada 

Round of 16, 2016/17 

Paris 4-0 Barcelona 
Barcelona 6-1 Paris 
(6-5 Agg) 

In 2021, a new word entered France’s Larousse dictionary, a word that had swept north from Spain and seared itself into a nation’s consciousness. Football had witnessed comebacks before Barcelona hosted Paris Saint-Germainin March 2017, but this was something else. This was a whole new category. This... was a Remontada. After all, few had dared to believe in Barça’s chances following their 4-0 humbling at the Parc des Princes, aside perhaps from Luis Enrique. “We can score six,” vowed the Catalan club’s defiant coach, ensuring a feverish atmosphere for the Camp Nou return. And so it proved as the hosts surged 3-0 ahead shortly after half-time, the crowd urging them on even after Edinson Cavani complicated their task. Although Barça still needed three more goals with two minutes left, up stepped Neymar to unleash mayhem... burying a free- kick, a penalty, and then feeding Sergi Roberto to complete the biggest comeback in Champions League history. 

Bayern survive Dynamo scare 

Second round, 1973/74 

Bayern 4-3 Dynamo Dresden
Dynamo Dresden 3-3 Bayern 
(6-7 Agg) 

Bayern were clear favourites when the champions of the two post-war German states met in the European Cup for the first time, but they were given a mighty scare at Munich’s new Olympiastadion. It took Bayern president Wilhelm Neudecker raising the victory bonus per player to 12,000 Deutschmarks during the half-time break for the hosts to turn a 3-2 deficit into a 4-3 victory, with Gerd Müller (left) scoring the winner. Before the second leg, Bayern spent the night in Hof in West Germany rather than Dresden, through fear of being spied on by the Stasi. The caution paid off. An early double from Uli Hoeness laid the foundations for Bayern’s progress in a tie that reverberated with wider significance. 

Paranormal becomes normal

Semi-finals, 2021/22 

Man City 4-3 Real Madrid
Real Madrid 3-1 Man City
(AET; 6-5 Agg) 

Manchester City led 2-0 inside 11 minutes of the first leg. They led 5-3 on aggregate entering the 90th minute of the second. Then everything changed. A 90th-minute Rodrygo goal. Sixty seconds later, another. Five minutes into extra time, with City spinning, Karim Benzema’s penalty completed this most astonishing of comebacks. Waves of belief had rolled around the Bernabéu, the collective confidence of a club with the most European Cups. The mentality of a team of seasoned winners helped. So too, Carlo Ancelotti’s wisdom in introducing fresh young substitutes. Madrid had pulled off their third thrilling escape act en route to the trophy, having already battled back from the brink against Paris Saint-Germain and Chelsea. “The paranormal became normal,” declared newspaper AS. “Come down, God, and explain this,” said Marca. Logic had no answer to such force of will. 

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UEFA Champions League
It's a knockout
For nail-biting, heart-stopping drama, nothing beats the blistering back and forth of a Champions League knockout tie. As this season’s competition gets down to business, Graham Hunter salutes the thrills and spills of a few epic floodlit nights
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