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Top underdog teams to play the Champions League

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Since the European Champion Clubs' Cup was officially changed to the UEFA Champions League in 1992, a majority of the trophies have been won by the teams from the top four European leagues, that is the English Premier League, the Spanish La Liga, the German Bundesliga and the Italian Serie A.

While Real Madrid rule the roost with the most Champions League winners’ trophies, many teams like Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Chelsea and Liverpool have also won the coveted trophy.

However, every few seasons, one team performs above all expectations, beating many top sides and claiming their own sweet place in history. Most of the time these teams tend to fall short, but some sides manage to continue their fine run and win the coveted European trophy.

On that note, here is a list of the top underdog teams to play the Champions League:

Bayer Leverkusen (2001-02)

The 2001-02 season is one to forget for Bayer Leverkusen fans, but their underrated performances through the season have to be lauded by many. They were on the verge of a treble after reaching the DFB-Pokal final and staying atop the Bundesliga table for most of the season.

However, by the time Leverkusen took on Real Madrid in the final, they had lost out on the Bundesliga trophy to Dortmund as well as losing the DFB-Pokal final to Schalke. However, Leverkusen did not put a foot wrong through the knockout stages of the Champions League, beating Liverpool and a strong Manchester United side on their way to the final.

Leverkusen finally had a chance to win some silverware when they took on Real Madrid at the Hampden Park in Glasgow, Scotland. However, the odds were stacked against them and rightly so, with a legendary volley by Zinedine Zidane sealing the victory. However, Leverkusen never gave up and came close to equalizing on several occasions but eventually lost.

FC Porto (2003-04)

FC Porto pip Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna to this spot primarily because Porto eventually won the trophy after beating Deportivo in the semis and also became the first club outside the big four leagues to win the title since Ajax in 1995. 

Porto were never favourites when the tournament began but by the time they squared off against AS Monaco in the finals, they had already won the Primeira Liga (Portugal’s domestic competition) as well as the Portuguese Super Cup. However, this special season for Porto also marked the breakthrough season for one Jose Mourinho.

Finishing second to Real Madrid in the group stages, Porto were exemplary in the run-up of the Champions League final that was played at the Arena AufSchalke in Germany. They beat Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, as well as Lyon and a resilient Deportivo La Coruna side en route to the finals. Goals from Carlos Alberto, Deco, Alenichev sealed Porto’s win, with Mourinho moving to Chelsea a week after the final.

AS Monaco (2016-17) 

In recent times, AS Monaco might be a glimmer of their former selves, but no one can discount their 2016-17 season, which featured stars like Fabinho, Joao Moutinho, Radamel Falcao, Thomas Lemar, Bernardo Silva and a 17-year-old Kylian Mbappe. Aside from winning the Ligue 1, this young squad was also ripping Europe apart.

Playing from the third-qualifying round, AS Monaco beat the likes of Fenerbache and Valencia in the qualifying stages of the Champions League, before topping the group stages, eliminating English giants Tottenham Hotspur, as well as beating them in both legs of their games.

Monaco were rampant during the knockout stages of the tournament as well, with Kylian Mbappe putting up a show for the whole of Europe to witness. After a 5-3 away loss to Manchester City, Monaco made amends in the home leg with a 3-1 victory, knocking out Pep Guardiola’s side on away goals. Dortmund were a breeze as well, with Leonardo Jardim’s side scoring six goals yet again and setting up a semifinal clash with Juventus.

However, Juventus were too defensive sound for the French team, who eventually lost 4-1 on aggregate and bowed out of the competition. 

AFC Ajax (2018-19)

Ajax have always been the surprise package in the Champions League – they won the title in 1995, and have always been among the underdog performers through the seasons. However, their performance through the 2018-19 season, where they beat some heavyweight teams, is one that the fans will always remember. 

Much like Monaco, Ajax and their young squad made it to the tournament after beating Austrian side Sturm Graz and Belgian side Standard Liege in the qualifying stages. Their group stages were a mixed bag, winning three and drawing three. However, the team from Amsterdam played unexpectedly well against Bayern Munich, who topped the group. They drew both their legs, coming back twice in the process. However, it was the knockout stages where they flourished. 

They beat defending champions Real Madrid 3-5 on aggregate while beating Italian champions, Juventus 2-3 on aggregate in the quarter-finals.

Entering into the semifinal stages, Ajax were definitely the weakest of the other three teams – Tottenham Hotspur, Barcelona, and previous year’s finalists Liverpool. However, they did not let their fans down after beating the North London side 1-0 away from home. However, a late goal by Lucas Moura to complete his hattrick sealed the deal for the Dutch side in the return, as they succumbed 3-2 on aggregate. They might have been eliminated, but Ajax surely won hearts with their spirited displays against many European giants of the beautiful game. 

Feature image courtesy: AFP / Pascal Guyot

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