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How easy is it to overturn a three-goal deficit in European football?

There are few things in football more exciting than a good comeback, and European football has given us some of the most memorable sporting comebacks in history.

Manchester United fans continue to reminisce over that magical night in Barcelona in 1999. One of the peaks of Liverpool’s history came in the 2005 Champions League final, when they washed away AC Milan’s 3-0 lead in the space of seven minutes.

However, there is a reason why these stories are so special, and that is because they’re rare. These comebacks don’t come about often.

As mentioned above, Liverpool pulled off one of the most memorable comebacks of all time 18 years ago. Now, they find themselves in a similar situation.

Having raced into a 2-0 lead in their round of 16 tie against Real Madrid, the Reds collapsed and ended up on the wrong side of a 5-2 scoreline.

They now travel to the home of Europe’s most successful club, needing to win by at least three goals to stand any chance of progressing.

But how often does this sort of thing happen in European football? Let’s take a look.

We’ve gone through the knockout results of every UEFA competition in history (European Cup/Champions League, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup/Europa League, Europa Conference League, European Cup Winners’ Cup, Intertoto Cup and UEFA Super Cup).

Of these results, there were 57 examples of a team progressing after losing the first leg by three or more goals.

European football first began in the 1955/56 season, meaning that these types of comebacks happen just under once per season on average. Based on this, Liverpool may take some hope.

However, many of these comebacks happened during European football’s earlier days. In fact, just 11 teams have overturned a three-goal first-leg deficit since 2000.

To make things even more daunting for Liverpool, they must do it away from home. Only one team has done this before in the history of European football.

That team was Dinamo Bucuresti in their 2009/10 Europa League play-off tie against Slovan Liberec. After being penalised with a 3-0 defeat for crowd trouble in their home leg, the Romanian side scored three in Liberec before winning the subsequent penalty shootout.

Other teams have come close in the past. Tottenham Hotspur were 3-0 down on aggregate at half-time in their semi-final clash with Ajax in 2019, and they managed to turn it around.

However, that came with the help of away goals – a rule which is no longer in operation, and likely wouldn’t favour Liverpool in this instance anyway.

Los Blancos themselves very nearly gave up a 3-0 first leg lead against Juventus in 2018, when the Bianconeri levelled the tie at the Bernabeu Stadium.

But, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo had the last laugh, netting a crucial injury-time strike to send his side on their way to the next round.

So….yeah, Jurgen Klopp does not have an enviable task on his hands. We’ve come to the groundbreaking conclusion that Real Madrid will probably make it through to the quarter-finals.

But anyway, here are our results (teams in bold progressed to the next round).

European Cup/Champions League

1958/59 Preliminary round – Schalke 5-5 KB
1963/64 Preliminary round – Jeunesse Esch 5-4 Haka
1965/66 Quarter-finals – Partizan Belgrade 6-4 Sparta Prague
1970/71 Semi-finals – Panathinaikos 4-4 Red Star Belgrade (evidence suggests Red Star players may have been bribed)
1974/75 Second round – Saint-Etienne 6-5 Hajduk Split
1975/76 Second round – Real Madrid 6-5 Derby County
1985/86 Semi-finals – Barcelona 3-3 IFK Goteborg
1988/89 First round – Werder Bremen 5-3 BFC Dynamo
1988/89 Second round – Galatasaray 5-3 Neuchatel Xamax
1992/93 First round – Leeds United 3-3 Stuttgart (Leeds were awarded a 3-0 second leg victory after Stuttgart fielded ineligible players)
1993/94 First round – Copenhagen 4-3 Linfield
1997/98 Second qualifying round – Paris Saint-Germain 5-3 Steau Bucuresti (Steau Bucuresti were awarded a 3-0 first leg victory after PSG fielded an ineligible player)
1999/2000 Second qualifying round – Widzew Lodz 4-4 Litex Lovech
2003/04 First qualifying round – Tirana 3-3 Dinamo Tbilisi
2003/04 Quarter-finals – Deportivo La Coruna 5-4 AC Milan
2014/15 Third qualifying round – Celtic 4-4 Legia Warsaw (Celtic were awarded a 3-0 second leg victory after Legia Warsaw fielded an ineligible player)
2016/17 Round of 16 – Barcelona 6-5 Paris Saint-Germain
2017/18 Quarter-finals – Roma 4-4 Barcelona
2019/19 Semi-finals – Liverpool 4-3 Barcelona

Inter-Cities Fairs Cup/UEFA Cup/Europa League

1960/61 First round – Belgrade XI 6-6 Leipzig XI
1964/65 First round – Kilmarnock 5-4 Eintracht Frankfurt
1966/67 Second round – Dinami Pitesti 5-4 Toulouse
1966/67 Semi-finals – Dinamo Zagreb 4-3 Eintracht Frankfurt
1967/68 Second round – Hibernian 6-4 Napoli
1969/70 Second round – Ujpest 5-5 Club Brugge
1971/72 Second round – Lierse 4-4 Rosenborg
1975/76 Second round – Club Brugge 4-3 Ipswich Town
1976/77 Quarter-finals – AEK Athens 3-3 Queens Park Rangers
1977/78 Third round – Barcelona 3-3 Ipswich Town
1978/79 First round – Red Star Belgrade 6-6 BFC Dynamo
1978/79 Third round – Dukla Prague 5-4 Stuttgart
1982/83 Second round – Bordeaux 5-4 Hajduk Split
1984/85 Second round – Partizan Belgrade 6-6 Queens Park Rangers
1984/85 Third round – Real Madrid 6-4 Anderlecht
1985/86 Third round – Real Madrid 5-5 Borussia Monchengladbach
1987/88 Second round – Sportul Studentesc 3-3 Brondby
1987/88 Third round – Club Brugge 5-3 Borussia Dortmund
1987/88 Third round – Panathinaikos 7-6 Budapesti Honved
1987/88 Final – Bayer Leverkusen 3-3 Espanyol
1990/91 Third round – Bologna 3-3 Admira Wacker
2000/01 First round – Wisla Krakow 5-5 Zaragoza
2001/02 Qualifying round – Elfsborg 5-3 Narva Trans
2001/02 Third round – Lyon 4-4 Club Brugge
2009/10 Play-off round – Slovan Liberec 3-3 Dinamo Bucuresti (Slovan Liberec were awarded a 3-0 first leg victory due to crowd trouble)
2013/14 Quarter-finals – Valencia 5-3 Basel

European Cup Winners’ Cup

1961/62 Preliminary round – Leixoes 7-6 La Chaux-de-Fonds
1963/64 Quarter-finals – Sporting CP 6-4 Manchester United
1963/64 Quarter-finals – MTK Budapest 4-3 Celtic
1978/79 Second round – Barcelona 3-3 Anderlecht
1980/81 First round – Carl Zeiss Jena 4-3 Roma
1984/85 Quarter-finals – Rapid Wien 5-3 Dynamo Dresden
1989/90 First round – Grasshopper 4-3 Slovan Bratislava
1994/95 Qualifying round – KF Tirana 4-4 Fandok Bobruisk
1995/96 Second round – Parma 4-3 Halmstad

Intertoto Cup

1964/65 Final – Polonia Bytom 5-4 SC Leipzig
1966/67 Semi-finals – Eintracht Frankfurt 7-5 Zaglebie Sosnowiec
1999 Second round – Varteks 3-3 Brann

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