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A Brief History of Liverpool’s Greatest European Comebacks

Liverpool’s victory over Barca will go down as one of the greatest turnarounds for a club with European comebacks in its DNA.

Liverpool v Barcelona - UEFA Champions League Semi Final: Second Leg Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

More than any other club, Liverpool are renowned for their comebacks. Especially in Europe. Often at Anfield. Those famous nights under the floodlights when the fans sing just a little bit louder and the players run just a little bit harder and the Kop can sometimes seem to will goals into existence.

While Barcelona might talk of Johan Cruyff’s total football philosophy being in their club’s DNA, for Liverpool it sometimes can feel as though overcoming long odds is in theirs. Yet no matter that it has happened before, what transpired on Tuesday was shocking. It was unprecedented.

Without Mohamed Salah and Roberto Firmino, at the end of a gruelling season in the league and Europe, on just two days rest, Liverpool staged the greatest ever comeback in a two-legged Champions League semi-final, overcoming a three goal deficit from the first leg to earn their place in the final.

It was the second greatest comeback the Champions League in its modern form has seen, just shy of Barcelona’s own 6-1 victory over PSG in 2017 in the Round of 16 after they lost the first leg 4-0, a comeback that marks the only time a team has overcome a four goal deficit in a two-legged Champions League tie.

By the goal totals, it matches last season when Roma overcame a three goal quarter-final deficit to Barcelona. Deportivo La Coruna did similar back in 2004, winning 4-0 at home after losing 4-1 to AC Milan on the road. On both occasions, though, the eventual winners had the advantage of an away goal.

No other club in the Champions League era has overcome more than a two goal deficit over a two-legged tie. Tuesday’s result was well and truly unprecedented, then, even by the standards of a club that can rightly claim European comebacks are in their DNA.

AC Milan vs. Liverpool - Champions League Final 2005

Mention Liverpool and comebacks and, of course, there’s Istanbul. There will always be Istanbul, and the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan. Paolo Maldini had opened the scoring just a minute into the match after an early free kick was awarded to Milan, and before the half was out, Hernan Crespo had added two more. Liverpool were down three goals and looked finished.

Then, the famous scenes of Liverpool supporters singing through the halftime break, so loud it could be heard in the dressing rooms. The team coming out in a changed formation. Three goals. Gerrard, Smicer, and finally Alonso off the rebound of a saved penalty. A nervy stretch as the game headed into extra time. Then penalties. Jerzy Dudek’s flailing limbs. And, somehow, a fifth European Cup.

Given the stage, and given Milan’s talent advantage over Liverpool, it’s a high-water mark that even last night’s victory over Barcelona might struggle to surpass. It is a miracle that for many still defines the club. But it hasn’t been the only one.

Liverpool vs. Olympiakos - Champions League Group Stage 2004

To make it to that final in Istanbul, first Liverpool needed to get out of the group stage—and they barely made it. When Rivaldo scored early in the final group match, it meant that they needed to score three times for the tie-breaker to go in their favour. First, Neil Mellor and Florent Sinama Pongolle gave the Reds hope. Then, with less than five minutes to play in the match, Steven Gerrard struck. The game ended 3-1 and Liverpool advanced.

Liverpool vs. St. Etienne - European Cup Quarter-Final 1977

Long before Rafa Benitez and that famous run to Istanbul, St. Etienne helped to lay the foundations of Anfield and Liverpool’s European aura. Despite having built Liverpool into a power, Bill Shankly’s teams were seen as having stumbled in Europe, and when Bob Paisley took over that looked a pattern set to continue as they were outclassed in France and fortunate to escape having only suffered a 1-0 defeat.

It was a scoreline that was kind to the Reds based on the performances—and it gave them a chance at Anfield. Backed by the home crowd, they came out firing and levelled the tie in the early minutes, but soon the talented French side found their feet and scored an away goal that meant Liverpool would need two more. They managed it in the second half, with a 59th minute strike from Ray Kennedy and then a goal in the 84th minute from David Fairclough.

Anfield had played its role in Europe before—including in a 3-1 semi-final first leg victory over Inter Milan in 1965 that the Italian club overturned in the second leg in controversial fashion amidst charges the referee had been bribed—but St. Etienne was the comeback that for a long time set the standard for Liverpool and famous European nights.

Liverpool vs. Brugge - UEFA Cup Final First Leg 1976

In 1976, the final was played over two legs, and the first was at Anfield. Despite that, the game still managed to be a comeback that built on the legend started against Inter Milan and St. Etienne and that would decide the tie in the Reds’ favour after they fell behind by two goals within 12 minutes. When the half ended with Liverpool just barely hanging on, Bob Paisley made an unorthodox change to start the second, removing striker John Toshack and bringing on midfielder Jimmy Case in his place.

It was an unexpected move down two goals, even from a manager with a reputation for tactical innovation, but it ended up an astute one that helped to settle his side, shoring up the midfield and helping Liverpool to score three goals in a six minute stretch in the second half to win the match. A 1-1 second leg in Brugge then saw Paisley win his first European trophy.

Liverpool vs. Dortmund - Europa League Quarter-Final 2016

From the moment he arrived, Jürgen Klopp made his presence felt at Anfield, and his first run with the club in Europe signalled to the world that the sleeping giant that was Liverpool Football Club might just be waking up. There hadn’t been a truly special European night at Anfield since Rafa Benitez’ departure, with the club mired on the fringes of relevance both domestically and on the continent—when they managed to qualify. Then, Liverpool took on his former club in the Europa League.

The first leg in Dortmund ended 1-1, but the German side looked superior—and they came out firing at Anfield, scoring two goals in the opening ten minutes. Rather like in 1976, the tie felt all but over. Then, the players steadied themselves. Anfield steadied itself. The Kop’s voice rose and Divock Origi—the hero again against Barcelona on Tuesday—scored to end the first half and give the hosts hope.

That hope was snatched away again in the second when Dortmund got a third. Somehow, though, the fans and players dug deep. They pressed on. Liverpool got a second. Then a third to level the game and the tie—but, behind on away goals, they knew it wouldn’t be enough. Finally, in stoppage time, Dejan Lovren headed home. Miraculously, Liverpool had won the game 4-3 and taken the tie 5-4 on aggregate.

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