Top 5 Champions League Over-Achievers
The underdog, the minnow, the lightweight, the long shot.
Whatever you wish to call them, they exist, and year after year they set the Champions League alight with audacious displays, fearlessness, and unpredictability.
Take Schalke for example.
Their heroic 5-2 first leg victory over Inter Milan in 2011 provided yet another example of just how topsy turvy Europe's premier club competition can be.
A prolific performance in front of goal from the German side, who were languishing mid-table in the Bundesliga, saw them dismantle an experienced Inter back line including Maicon, Christian Chivu and Javier Zanetti.
It was a display which revitalized nostalgia of previous European upsets, and so I have compiled a list of the top five Champions League over-achievers in recent years.
No.1 Olympique de Marseille 1992-93
Milan went into show-piece having won 10 consecutive European matches under the expert guidance of Fabio Capello.
His formidable Milan line-up showcased the world class talents of Van Basten, Rijkaard and Maldini and were undoubted favourites before kick off.
Marseille shocked the Rossoneri, and went in front on the stroke of half time when Pele crossed for Basile Boli to head past a stranded Sebastiano Rossi, sending French fans into raptures.
Raymond Goethals and his team secured victory with a resilient second half defensive display to ensure that Marseille became the first and only French team to ever lift the European Cup.
Didier Deschamps, Marseille captain on that fateful night in Munich, still remains the youngest ever captain to win the Champions League.
No.2 FC Porto 2003-2004
Porto, under Jose Mourinho, had thrown the form book out the window by eliminating English giants Manchester United in the first knockout round with a late strike at Old Trafford, before dispatching of French champions Lyon in the Quarter-Finals.
Mourinho's side completed the fairytale ending to their campaign with a comfortable 3-0 victory in the final against Monaco, courtesy of goals from Carlos Alberto, Dimitri Alenitchev and the outstanding player of the competition, Deco.
The miniature Portuguese maestro orchestrating the vast majority of Porto's goals on their passage to glory.
The self proclaimed 'special one' had also steered Porto to victory in the previous year's Uefa Cup final, and it was to be the first time that consecutive wins in each competition had ever been achieved.
No.3 A.S Monaco 2003-2004
Croatian Dado Prso was the top performer in the group stages, notching five goals in an 8-3 demolition of Deportivo la Coruna as Monaco cruised into the first knockout round.
Here they took on Lokomotiv Moscow, where Fernando Morientes' away goal proved to be the key as Monaco scraped through on away goals.
Monaco then travelled to the Bernabeu to face Real Madrid in the Quarter-finals.
It scheduled the emotional homecoming for Morientes, on loan at Monaco from Real, after the striker had previously won the tournament with Madrid back in 2002.
Although losing 4-2 in Spain, Morientes and Sebastien Squillaci claimed two decisive away goals to bring back to the Stade Louis II.
Morientes and Ludovic Guily completed a historic win for Monaco in the second leg, as they ran out 3-1 winners to cement their place in the semi finals.
There they faced Chelsea, and the prolific Morientes was on the score-sheet once more, netting a goal in either leg as Monaco progressed to their first ever Champions League final with a 5-3 aggregate victory.
A disappointing defeat in the final did not overshadow the emergence of Ludovic Giuly onto the world-stage. His phenomenal pace and flair down the right flank earning him many admirers, among them Barcelona, who captured the Frenchman for seven million euros the following summer.
No.4 Leeds United 2000-01
They eased past 1860 Munich with a 3-1 aggregate win, and little more was expected of the David O'leary's men from Yorkshire.
Drawn into a 'group of death' alongside Milan, Barcelona and Besiktas in the first group stage, no one was foolish enough to gamble on Leeds to progress.
A 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Barca in their opening match was to be expected at the Nou Camp, but impressive wins over Milan and Besiktas got Leeds' campaign quickly back on track.
Anything but a loss at the San Siro would suffice for Leeds heading into the final round of matches, and despite Barca thrashing Besiktas 5-0, Dominic Matteo's 45th minute goal ensured a draw against Milan and progression to the second group phase.
Yorkshire's European novices found themselves drawn with Real Madrid, Lazio and Anderlecht, and the they were humbled once again in their opening group match, a 2-0 defeat to Los Blancos at the Bernabeu.
Victories away to Lazio, and Anderlecht meant that a close 3-2 defeat at home to Real was insignificant in the grand scheme of things, Leeds having already guaranteed a place in the knockout phase in second place behind group leaders Real Madrid.
A meeting with Deportivo la Coruna beckoned in the quarter finals, and Leeds gave themselves a great advantage in the first leg with a 3-0 win in front of a packed out Elland Road.
Deportivo had only lost once at home in the competition, against Milan, and Leeds visited the Riazor knowing they faced a tough task ahead.
A 2-0 defeat was not enough for Deportivo to win however, and Leeds went through to semi finals to face Valencia.
After facing each of the four Spanish teams in the competition, Valencia proved to be a class above in the semis.
Despite grinding out a goalless draw at home, Leeds' European hopes were dashed by the clinical Spaniards, losing 3-0 at the Mestalla.
No.5 Bayer Leverkusen 2001-02
Once again the classic case of a small squad playing above their expectations across three separate fronts ultimately costing them success, as they finished the season trophyless.
The performances of central midfielder Michael Ballack, or 'Little Kaiser', raised his profile across Europe with sensational attacking displays, raising his stature from a young prodigy to a consistently influential playmaker and goalscorer.
Drawn in a group with Barcelona, and Lyon, Leverkusen were expected to falter at the first hurdle.
But four wins, including a 2-1 triumph at home against the Catalonians ensured Leverkusen a passage into the second group phase to face off against Arsenal, Juventus and Deportivo la Coruna.
Despite heavy losses away to Juventus and Arsenal, Leverkusen were gifted the stroke of luck they needed away to Deportivo La Coruna.
Having already qualified for the quarter finals, Deportivo fielded a weakened side when they hosted Leverkusen in their final group match.
Ballack, Bernt Schneider and Oliver Neuville took full advantage to seal a 3-1 win, and a quarter final place.
As the tournament reached the final eight, Ballack's influence became ever greater and it was his phenomenal strike from 25 yards that began the 4-2 rout at the BayArena to send Liverpool packing. Victory set up a semi final against none other than Manchester United. Ballack yet again on the score-sheet at Old Trafford, with Oliver Neuville adding a second in a crucial 2-2 draw. A 1-1 stalemate in the return leg was enough for Leverkusen to progress on away goals. Real Madrid's Galacticos awaited in the final held at Scotland's Hampden Park, and Leverkusens' winning formula finally came undone with a goal of sheer quality from Zinedine Zidane. The French magician, arguably the greatest player of his generation, wrapped his left foot around a high, looping, cross from Roberto Carlos, curling the ball with power and precision into the top corner of the goal past the despairing Hans Jorg Butt. The 'almost' champions gained some consolation though, going down in the history books as the only club to have reached the Champions League final without ever winning a domestic championship.
Could Schalke go one better?
With Schalke taking a stranglehold of their quarter final against Inter Milan, could we be about to witness another German side performing above and beyond themselves to reach the final?
Not only do they possess the speed and guile of Peruvian winger Jefferson Farfan, the athleticism and shot-stopping of Manuel Neuer.
They also boast the experience and goalscoring prowess of a man who has been there and done it before, on three occasions, Raul.
The 33 year-old Spaniard may just be the difference between success and failure in the pivotal matches that lie ahead, and he has a taste for scoring against Spanish opponents, as we witnessed in Valencia.
Could this be the key if Schalke fulfill their aspirations and reach the final and Wembley, where they will inevitably face either Barcelona or Real Madrid? Let's wait and see.
Article Written By: Mark Masterton