When the Champions League semifinals begin this week, with Manchester City hosting Real Madrid on Tuesday and Villarreal travelling to Liverpool the following night, none of those clubs are likely to be taking inspiration from Barcelona. And why would they? This, after all, is a team that got knocked out of the Europa League the other week. By Eintracht Frankfurt. In their own stadium.
But it was Barca who, five years ago, staged a historic comeback against Paris Saint-Germain that redefined what’s possible in the knockout stages of the Champions League, no matter how bleak the outlook may seem after the first leg. Given what has happened in the competition since, you wouldn’t bet against one of this season’s semifinalists staging a miraculous comeback of their own if required.
Barca came into the second leg of their round-of-16 tie vs. PSG on March 8, 2017, at Camp Nou 4-0 down from the first leg, and few gave them any hope of doing much more than restoring some pride. After all, no team in the history of the Champions League had ever recovered from a four-goal first-leg deficit to progress.
But somehow, Luis Enrique’s side summoned hitherto unseen depths of will to grab an odds-defying 6-1 win and reach the quarterfinals. Barca forward Neymar was the driving force, scoring goals in the 88th and 91st minutes before setting up Sergi Roberto for his team’s sixth and final goal in the fifth minute of injury time, triggering pandemonium inside the stadium. The Spanish press christened the match “La Remontada” — the comeback to end all comebacks.
The match also helped convince Neymar that he needed to leave Barca in order to step out of Lionel Messi‘s shadow and win the Ballon d’Or. PSG were only too happy to oblige, signing him that very summer for a world-record transfer fee of €222 million and forever changing the transfer market and the game at the top level. But it also proved that, when it comes to the Champions League, anything can happen.
Only once before in the almost 25-year history of the competition up to that point had a team even managed to come from three goals down in the second leg of a tie to progress, way back in 2003-04 when Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna beat defending European champions AC Milan 4-0 after losing 4-1 at San Siro.
In the past five years, it’s happened three times, with Barca twice finding themselves on the receiving end after their amazing comeback. The very next season, they lost 3-0 at Roma to be eliminated on away goals (that upset was dubbed the “Romantada“) while in the 2018-19 semifinals, they went out 4-3 on aggregate after losing 4-0 to Liverpool at Anfield in another of the most stunning turnarounds ever seen in the competition.
And while there had been a total of eight comebacks from two-goal first-leg deficits in the Champions League before Barca stunned PSG, there have been six of them in the past five years alone. In fact, there was one the week after Barca’s four-goal swing vs. PSG, when a Monaco side featuring Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Fabinho and Thomas Lemar overcame Manchester City 3-1, having lost 5-3 at the Etihad.
In all there were 36 occasions, in the almost 25 complete seasons of the pre-Remontada era, in which a club had recovered from at least one goal down after the first leg of a Champions League knockout tie to progress to the knockout round, an average of 1.44 a year.
In the period of just over five years since that match, there have been 14 at an average of 2.8 per year. Even if you discount from that total Barca’s comeback vs. PSG itself and Borussia Dortmund‘s 4-0 win over Benfica after losing the first leg 1-0, which was happening at the very same time as history was being made in Catalonia, that’s still 12 comebacks at a rate of 2.4 a year.
Those numbers are even more stark when you consider that, in the 2019-20 season, only the round-of-16 ties were played over two legs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the remainder of the tournament comprising one-legged ties condensed into a mini-tournament in Portugal once the season resumed in the summer. But still, even then, habitual comeback victims PSG managed to get their own taste of a European reversal by beating Dortmund 2-0 in Paris to win their tie 3-2 in one of the last matches played before football across the continent ground to a halt.
The 2018-19 season was particularly fertile ground for wild comebacks with — apart from Barca’s fall at Anfield — Manchester United overcoming PSG (them again) in Paris and Ajax thrashing Real Madrid 4-1 in the second leg of their quarterfinal, only to succumb themselves to Lucas Moura‘s extraordinary second-half hat trick in their semifinal second leg against Tottenham Hotspur.
And just last month, almost exactly five years to the day since Barca’s heroics, Real Madrid staged their own Remontada against PSG as Karim Benzema‘s second-half hat trick saw the 13-time champions progress against all odds. Benzema scored another hat trick in his next European game to give Madrid a commanding 3-1 lead against Chelsea, but the defending champions almost staged their own rally for the ages by forcing extra time at the Bernabeu, only for Benzema to settle the tie 4-3 on aggregate.
Results were already trending toward more comebacks in the years immediately before Barca’s Remontada, with five two-goal deficits overturned in the previous four seasons alone. As the rigours of away games have become much less of a factor in the modern game — so much so that the away goals rule has been abolished this season — and quality players become more concentrated at the biggest clubs, the odds of recovering from mid-tie setbacks has also tipped further in their favour.
But that astonishing result at Camp Nou in 2017 accelerated the trend, to the point where we are now not as surprised by such events as we once were. The Champions League knockout phase has truly become a machine for generating stunning comebacks, so much so that we can almost half expect something extraordinary to happen over the next two weeks. And that’s with PSG already out.
Champions League comebacks, season by season (since 1992-93)
QF: Barcelona 1-3 vs. Chelsea (a) / 5-1 aet (h)
SF: Juventus 1-2 vs. Real Madrid (a) / 3-1 (h)
R16: Monaco 1-2 vs. Lokomotiv Moskow (a) / W1-0 (h)
QF: Deportivo La Coruna 1-4 vs. AC Milan (a) / 4-0 (h)
QF: Monaco 2-4 vs. Real Madrid (a) / 3-1 (h)
R16: Juventus 0-1 vs. Real Madrid (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Chelsea 1-2 vs. Barcelona (a) / 4-2 (h)
R16: Bayern Munich 2-3 vs. Real Madrid (a) / 2-1 (h)
QF: Manchester United 1-2 vs. Roma (a) / 7-1 (h)
SF: AC Milan 2-3 vs. Manchester United (a) / 3-0 (h)
SF: Liverpool 0-1 vs. Chelsea (a) / 1-0 (pens) (h)
QF: Chelsea 1-2 vs. Fenerbahce (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Arsenal 1-2 vs. FC Porto (a) / 5-0 (h)
R16: Barcelona 1-2 vs. Arsenal (a) / 3-1 (h)
R16: Inter Milan 0-1 vs. Bayern Munich (h) / 3-2 (a)
R16: Chelsea 1-3 vs. Napoli (a) / 4-1 (h)
R16: Apoel Nicosia 0-1 vs. Lyon (a) / 1-0 (pens) (h)
R16: Benfica 2-3 vs. Zenit St Petersburg (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Bayern Munich 0-1 vs. FC Basel (a) / 7-0 (h)
R16: Barcelona 0-2 vs. AC Milan (a) / 4-0 (h)
R16: Malaga 0-1 vs. FC Porto (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Manchester United 0-2 vs. Olympiakos (a) / 3-0 (h)
QF: Chelsea 1-3 vs. Paris Saint-Germain (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Atletico Madrid 0-1 vs. Bayer Leverkusen (a) / 1-0 (pens) (h)
QF: Bayern Munich 1-3 vs. FC Porto (a) / 6-1 (h)
QF: Real Madrid 0-2 vs. Wolfsburg (a) / 3-0 (h)
QF: Atletico Madrid 1-2 vs. Barcelona (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Barcelona 0-4 vs. Paris Saint-Germain (a) / 6-1 (h)
R16: Borussia Dortmund 0-1 vs. Benfica (a) / 4-0 (h)
R16: Monaco 3-5 vs. Manchester City (a) / 3-1 (h)
R16: Leicester City 1-2 vs. Sevilla (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Roma 1-2 vs. Shakhtar Donetsk (a) / 1-0 (h)
QF: AS Roma 1-4 vs. Barcelona (a) / 3-0 (h)
R16: Manchester United 0-2 vs. Paris Saint-Germain (h) / 3-1 (a)
R16: Juventus 0-2 vs. Atletico Madrid (a) / 3-0 (h)
R16: Ajax 1-2 vs. Real Madrid (h) / 4-1 (a)
R16: FC Porto 1-2 vs. Roma (a) / 3-1 (h)
SF: Liverpool 0-3 vs. Barcelona (a) / 4-0 (h)
SF: Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 vs. Ajax (h) / 3-2 (a)
R16: Paris Saint-Germain 1-2 vs. Borussia Dortmund (a) / 2-0 (h)
R16: Real Madrid 0-1 vs. Paris Saint-Germain (a) / 3-1 (h)
Number of goals in comebacks
4 goals: 1
3 goals: 3
2 goals: 11
1 goals: 35
Total comebacks: 50
Total pre-remontada: 36 in 25 years
Total since remontada (inc.): 14 in 5 years