Chelsea almost completed one of the best nights in their history when they visited Real Madrid, looking to overturn a 3-1 deficit in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-finals. They succeeded, at least for a while. Thomas Tuchel’s men played confidently and aggressively, and looked like the home team for much of the match, with away fans audible over a disgruntled Bernabéu earlier this month.
It wasn’t going to be for the Blues. Rodrygo’s shot after Luka Modric found him with a sublime cross from outside the boot tied the tie. Karim Benzema was the man who made the difference, leading Real back to the lead during extra time.
Still, the West London side can be proud of how they played for much of the match. The 120 minutes in Madrid were a perfect example of a ‘near comeback’: a team giving themselves an impossible task in the first leg, only to come terribly close in the second.
In honor of Chelsea’s efforts, we’ve compiled a list of the best near comebacks in the Champions League in recent years.
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Man Utd 5-6 Real Madrid (2002/03 quarter-finals)
It was another English defeat at the Bernabéu, as Raúl scored a brace in the first leg as Real Madrid won 3-1 at home to put himself in the driving seat.
United would host the Galacticos at Old Trafford and, with Raúl sidelined with appendicitis, they were hopeful of a comeback. But a hat-trick from Brazilian star Ronaldo gave the visitors the lead three times.
But at 3-2 for Real Madrid (and 6-3 on aggregate for the Spanish team), it wasn’t over yet. David Beckham scored a brace to give United victory in the second leg: a trademark free kick was followed by a second game with minutes left on the clock. However, United’s comeback fell short of two goals (Real Madrid would have gone ahead on away goals).
Bayern Munich 3-3 Arsenal (2012/13, Round of 16)
Jupp Heynckes’ side won 3-1 in North London in the first leg of this tie to take control. Bayern were in top form, setting a new record for the fastest win in Bundesliga title history, and Arsène Wenger was asked if a comeback was an “impossible mission” before the match.
Impossible or not, Arsenal tried. It only took them three minutes to score, Olivier Giroud slipping home Theo Walcott’s cross to give them an unlikely goal. Bayern were beaten, but not for long, and soon took control of the game. Both teams had chances, but the defenses were on top of the game and a comeback seemed unlikely for the Gunners.
A second goal later changed the tone of the tie, as Laurent Koscielny headed in a Santi Cazorla corner with minutes to go, causing a manic end to the game. Bayern Munich went through away goals, and Arsenal couldn’t find the goal they needed in the final minutes.
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PSV Eindhoven 3-3 AC Milan (2004/05, semi-finals)
A mirror image of the previous tie, this time it was PSV Eindhoven who failed to come from behind. The Dutch team lost 2-0 in the first leg, but received Milan with a comeback in mind.
They started brilliantly, with Ji-Sung Park recovering a goal in the first ten minutes. Milan were difficult to break, with coach Carlo Ancelotti occupying his team’s midfield, but the Dutch team got the goal they were looking for just after the hour. Phillip Cocu headed in a cross from Young-Pyo Lee and the tie was 2-2 on aggregate.
PSV’s task was made more difficult when Massimo Ambrosini headed in a Kaká cross and, although Cocu gave his team hope with an excellent volley, the Italians took the lead on away goals.
— UEFA Champions League (@ChampionsLeague) May 4, 2021
Arsenal 3-4 AC Milan (2011/12, Round of 16)
Arsenal faced a mountain to climb after a meek performance in the first leg, with AC Milan winning 4-0 at the San Siro. While Milan went through last, Arsenal gave them a scare in north London. The second leg started well for Arsenal, with Laurent Koscielny heading a corner past Christian Abbiati with less than ten minutes left on the clock.
Less than 20 minutes later, Tomas Rosicky deflected a cross from Theo Walcott. Milan was shaken, and Arsenal were rampant. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain was awarded a penalty just before half-time after driving in Djamel Mesbah, who had one of the worst Champions League debuts in living memory. Robin van Persie converted from the spot and Arsenal were nearly level.
The Gunners continued their effort after the break and, just before the hour mark, van Persie had a chance to level the tie. Close to goal, he opted for a delicate dink on Abbiati, who latched onto the ball. That was the game. Arsenal began to tire, Oxlade-Chamberlain had already left with injury and Milan had the better part of the game in the later stages. Arsène Wenger’s team came close, but ultimately fell short.
Chelsea 7-5 Liverpool (2008/09, quarter-finals)
This tie saw an eight-goal suspense in the second leg as Guus Hiddink’s Chelsea survived a major scare at home to Liverpool.
Having won the first leg at Anfield 3-1, Chelsea could be forgiven for thinking they had done the hard part. However, the visitors had the best of the first half at Stamford Bridge. The Reds went two goals clear after Petr Cech misjudged a Fabio Aurelio free kick and Xabi Alonso converted a penalty. Liverpool’s comeback was almost complete, before Chelsea struck back.
The Blues scored twice in six minutes, with a deft finish from Drogba forcing a loose ball from Pepe Reina before Alex scored a free kick. Drogba then became a provider, while Frank Lampard converted his center. Chelsea took the lead on the night, and the tie seemed out of reach for Liverpool, but the Merseyside club came from behind.
Lucas Leiva’s shot found the back of the net, by a deflection, and Dirk Kuyt quickly followed it up with a header to the near post. Stamford Bridge fell into an eerie silence as Liverpool needed just one more goal in the latter stages of the game to overcome away goals. However, the final goal went the way of the hosts. Anelka’s pass was deflected by Lampard. He got his second of the match and the tie really got past Liverpool.
Monaco 3-3 Arsenal (2014/15, round of 16)
In what has become a recurring theme, Arsenal once again found themselves with an unenviable task after a disappointing first leg. Arsenal lost 3-1 in north London, an agonizing match in which Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored a wonder goal after ninety minutes to bring the tie to 2-1, only for Yannick Carrasco to get in behind when Arsenal was stuck in the field chasing. the match, and scored a third goal away from home.
However, Arsenal were used to attempting comebacks in the second leg. They improved a lot in the second leg, the best team in Monaco, and reaped their reward when Olivier Giroud scored in the 36th minute. Danny Welbeck came close just before half-time, but Arsenal went into half-time trailing 3-2 on aggregate.
Aaron Ramsey came on and made the difference, taking advantage of a poor clearance from Layvin Kurzawa to score another goal with ten minutes remaining. Monaco began to regain their composure in the second half and caused Arsenal their own problems. In the end, a 2-0 loss on the night saw the hosts on away goals.
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Real Madrid 5-4 Schalke 04 (2014/15, Round of 16)
In the same stretch of the competition that year, Schalke scared Real Madrid. The Spanish team won the first leg in Germany 2-0, with goals from Cristiano Ronaldo and Marcelo, and hoped to reach the quarterfinals with the second leg at home. The two teams had met on the same stage the year before, with Real winning 9-2 on aggregate, but it was a much closer race this time around.
Christian Fuchs fired in the 20th minute to give the visitors the lead, before Cristiano Ronaldo equalized with a header minutes later. He had to repeat the trick just before the break, as Klaas-Jan Huntelaar had put the visitors ahead again on the night. Karim Benzema made it 3-2 for the locals in the second half, but he fulfilled that goal with a great goal from Leroy Sané, who deflected the ball from Iker Casillas from outside the area.
Carlo Ancelotti’s side had come under fire in recent months, and Schalke’s stubborn resistance continued to expose their weaknesses. The visitors scored again, Huntelaar putting them ahead on the night in the 84th minute. They were just one goal away from leveling the tie on aggregate and advancing on away goals, but that proved to be a step too far. A frenetic finish saw Madrid reach the quarter-finals by the skin of their teeth.
Real Madrid 4-3 Juventus (2017/18, quarter-finals)
Real Madrid needed a penalty from Cristiano Ronaldo, right on death, to overcome this one. They were 3-0 up from the first leg, a game in which the Portuguese striker scored a spectacular Chilean. From the start, things didn’t go the way of the hosts in this game, with Mario Mandzukic heading in from Sami Khedira’s cross after two minutes.
Mandzukic also got the second, just before the break. This time Stephan Lichtsteiner was the provider, as the Italian side only needed one more goal to level the tie. That goal came through Blaise Matuidi, the French midfielder who took advantage of a Keylor Navas error to make it 3-3 on aggregate, and the tie was level.
Juventus tried to push for a quarter, but couldn’t find it. In the 90th minute, Medhi Benatia brought down Lucas Vázquez in the box. Several minutes passed with the Juventus players protesting angrily. Gianluigi Buffon was sent off and eventually Gonzalo Higuaín replaced Wojciech Szczęsny to score the penalty. Seven minutes after it was awarded, the penalty was converted by Ronaldo and Juventus’ hearts broke.