Underdog stories in European football often make the sport more mesmerizing, and in the Europa League, there have been a few teams who defied the odds and scripted memories that will remain fresh for years to come.
While everyone loves a winner and continuously associates it with a footballing giant, lesser-known teams pulling off a major upset is not a common sight in modern football. We pick three memorable fixtures which took the sporting world by storm.
Fulham vs Juventus (2010)
The early years of the Europa League saw English clubs carry the tag of giant-killers, and one such team is Roy Hodgson’s Fulham.
The Cottagers, who had an indifferent Premier League campaign, took on a mighty Juventus team that boasted the likes of Alessandro del Piero, David Trezeguet, and Samir Salihamidžić. A 1-3 defeat in their round of 16 first leg in Turin virtually closed the door for a comeback.
On March 18, 2010, not only the travelling Juventus fans but the entire home crowd at Craven Cottage were left in astonishment as Bobby Zamora set a comeback spree in motion. Zoltan Gera’s twin strikes and Chris Dempsey’s ambitious chip-shot goal sealed a 4-1 win and propelled Fulham to a 5-4 aggregate win over the Bianconeri.
Moving forward, Fulham went on to the finals but fell short of a historic win against Atletico Madrid as Diego Forlan’s 116th-minute sealed a 2-1 win for the Madrid club.
Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk vs Napoli (2015)
The now-defunct Ukranian club generated waves in the 2014/15 edition, from trouncing Dutch giants Ajax in the round of 16 to putting up a bold challenge in the final against Sevilla. But, what stands out the most is their semifinal win over Rafa Benitez-coached Napoli.
Making their first appearance at Europe’s second-tier competition, Dnipro were one of the most shrewd teams as they fought off challenges from Olympiacos, Ajax and Club Brugge to set up a date with the Partenopei in the semifinals.
The Ukranians spoiled the party for Napoli in the first leg as striker Yevhen Seleznyov cancelled out David Lopez’s 50th-minute opener three minutes before the end of regulation time to seal a hard-fought 1-1 draw.
As it was in the first leg, the second leg took its own time for either team to draw first blood. Seleznyov proved to be the hero for Dnipro as his 58th-minute goal won the tie in Kyiv and sent Myron Markevych's men to their maiden UEFA competition final against Sevilla.
Dnipro’s fairytale run ended with a nail-biting 3-2 defeat, and since then, the team’s rapid decline began until their eventual dissolution in 2019.
Midtjylland vs Manchester United (2016)
At the very mention of Manchester United, a football fan will always link the team to their Champions League success in 1999 and 2008, and in recent years, the 2017 Europa League victory under Jose Mourinho.
However, the last decade has seen the Red Devils fall from grace in the knockout stages of European competitions and the 2016 round of 32 loss to the Danish club is one of the major upsets of all time.
Then Manchester United manager Louis Van Gaal fielded an under-strength squad as 14 first-team players were sidelined either with illness or injury. This was coupled with their 10 defeats across all competitions in the 2015-16 campaign.
Memphis Depay’s 37th-minute strike put United in the lead before Pione Sisto drew level in the 44th minute. The Red Devils’ midfield and backline failed to sustain the attacking pressure of a team that hadn’t played for 71 days - because of the Danish winter break, and their woes were further compounded by Paul Onuachu header from six yards out of the box in the 77th minute.
With criticism piling on their table, Manchester United won the second leg but eventually crashed out in the round of 16, at the hands of arch-rivals Liverpool.
Feature image courtesy: AFP / Genya Savilov