Can an Underdog Still win the Champions League? The UEFA Champions League is a fantastic competition and has continued to provide some of the most thrilling moments in football – both 2019 semi-finals were a testament to that. But the competition has not had a surprise winner for many years.
No surprise winners recently
Tottenham Hotspur were one step away from their first European Cup in 2019 and would have fallen into the category of “surprise winners” as they defied many of the best football tipsters in the UK, but for the last 15 years the competition has been won by one of the established big names from the top four leagues.
When Liverpool won in 2005, the manner of the win was remarkable and the club had suffered a slump in form in the Premier League but they could not be considered underdogs. It was their fifth European Cup and they had won the UEFA Cup just four years earlier.
Last unexpected win came in 2004
The last true outsiders to win the competitions were Porto who triumphed under Jose Mourinho in 2004. The Portuguese league was ranked sixth in Europe and at the time, only one Portuguese team had won the trophy since 1962 (Porto in 1987). So, although they had won the competition once before, their triumph was still unexpected. Their opponents, Monaco, were also shock finalists, making 2004 an outlier at the time.
Age of the underdog
The golden age of the European Cup underdog came between 1982 and 1992. Aston Villa, Hamburg, Steaua București, Porto, PSV Eindhoven and Red Star Belgrade all won the competition during a period that also included two wins for Milan, one for Juventus and one for Liverpool. Villa’s win was the last of six-in-a-row for English clubs at the time, a run that included two consecutive wins for Nottingham Forest, who won their first European Cup just two years after gaining promotion from England’s second tier.
Between 1971 and 1981, only Ajax (3), Bayern Munich (3), Liverpool (3) and Forest (2) won the European Cup. However, between 1960 and 1970, seven different teams claimed the trophy with Celtic pulling off the biggest shock, defeating Helenio Herrera’s notorious Internazionale team in Lisbon in 1967.
Some big names yet to win the ultimate prize
Fast forward to 2020 and the best UK bookmakers and football experts all have Manchester City as favourites ahead of Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain. Neither City nor PSG has ever won the competition but nobody would class them as underdogs due to their financial status and their dominance in their domestic leagues. Atletico Madrid are also in the running and have never won it before but they have reached the final three times including twice in the last six years. There is a good chance we could get a first-time winner without it being too much of a shock.
Of the teams left in the competition, the two who have the potential to pull off a shock are Atalanta and RB Leipzig. The Italian side have only ever won one domestic trophy and that was nearly 60 years ago, while the German team were only founded in 2009. Yet both sides have emerged as the two of the best sides to watch in Europe over the last couple of years.
Atalanta’s style under Gian Piero Gasperini seems particularly suited to cup competitions as demonstrated by their run to the Coppa Italia final last year. Their first foray into Champions League football started badly but they surprised all to recover and qualify for the knockout stages at the first attempt.
Leipzig are coached by 32-year-old Julian Nagelsmann who is already rated as one of the best technicians in the game. His side cruised to the quarter-finals of the competition in 2019/20 after winning their group and then beating last year’s finalists Tottenham Hotspur 4-0 on aggregate.
With exciting teams like this emerging across Europe, it should not be too much longer before the Champions League enjoys another true underdog winner.