Who doesn’t love an underdog story. Have one in football’s grandest club competition would elevate its status even more. Alankrith Shankar ponders if an underdog could take the competition and everyone involved by surprise and go on to win it this year.
Unlikely. That would be the word, most people would use to describe the 2003-04 Champions League campaign overall. The competition threw a lot of surprises to fans around the world and the biggest of them all was the final between French side AS Monaco, who since that final have gone down from the League 1 and returned back to their champions league days, but missed out unfortunately this season losing to Valencia in the final qualifier tie, thereby creating history as 5 Spanish sides now will play this year’s competition.
The other finalist in 2004 was the one that gave quite a bit of shock to the viewers. It was Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto side which had a mix of experienced veterans and youngsters who were entering the prime of their careers. Mourinho himself was a rookie to the Champions League competition, with his previous managerial stints limited to about 1.5 seasons at rival Portuguese clubs before joining Porto in 2002-03. And at the end of his second season at the club, he won the most prestigious club competition in Europe upsetting favourites, Manchester United and other teams such as Lyon who were considered to be a level above his Porto side.
In 2003, Porto did win the UEFA Cup under Mourinho’s management but they were not tipped to go further than the first round of the knock-out stages of the Champions League in 2004, let alone compete and win the competition amongst financially backed teams like Manchester United, Real Madrid and AC Milan. But they realized being the underdog was the perfect status that they could have earned themselves. It made them punch above their weight in every challenge thrown at them and a person like Mourinho who has proven to be one of the most tactically astute managers in the world, setting up the victory against teams who miscalculated the threat of his Porto side on every occasion was a challenge he loved to take up and succeed. And that is exactly what happened.
Excluding Mourinho from the Porto side that emerges successful in 2004, there was no one in that team you could say was a sure star turn in the side other than the Deco. The team did consist of rising stars like Ricardo Carvalho, Paulo Fereia, both followed Mourinho to England on to his Chelsea adventure while it also featured Jose Bosingwa, Carlos Alberto (who was just 19 at the time of the final) and Ricardo Costa. But they were able to achieve balance of experience with Deco, veteran captain, Jorge Costa and Pedro Mendes as the side evolved under Mourinho’s style of play to become one of the most talked about surprise success stories of the first decade of the millennium. Of course, Jose’s Chelsea adventure overshadowed his success in Portugal but this will always be remembered as the platform through which the world recognized Mourinho.
The Champions League is known to throw certain gems like the 2004 final. But none so far has even come close to that surprising season ever since. Porto was a clear underdog and one of the teams which came close to repeating that story would be the German side Schalke, who were clear underdogs but came as close to a final of the competition in 2011 but unfortunately, it was not going to be a fairytail-ish ending to that story as they crashed out of the competition to English giants, Manchester United. The red devils did not fall prey this time round as they overcame a similar kind of underdog in a big game as they have done so before. We could say the difference between Porto and Schalke was none other than Mourinho, who with his tactical sharpness was able to overcome the genius of Sir Alex but the task was too much for a young Schalke side punching much above their weight.
In 2011, there was another English side surprising teams. It was a side making their first ever appearance in the competition. No points for correct guesses, it was none other than the North London club, Tottenham, who were soaring through the Champions League as Gareth Bale started to show his pace was enough to rip apart teams, including the then holders – Inter Milan and their city rivals AC Milan. But this ended badly as Real Madrid were having none of it. Jose Mourinho was managing the Spanish club this time and he demolished them and the north London club did not make it back to the competition, not for the lack of trying. Ever since that fateful year, they finished only once in the top 4 and missed out due to a comical turn of events as Chelsea surprised everyone by winning the Champions League against Bayern Munich in the painful and very lucky win at the Allianz Arena. Spurs have changed 3 managers since and sold probably the best player ever to have worn the lilywhite kit with the cockerel and are quite far from making it to the competition the traditional way, but with some serious concentration they could win the Europa League this season but as always, they do something Spursy to spoil the script.
Underdog success stories are a rarity but who doesn’t love them. But in the mid 2000s, it seemed to be a trend or the mainstream thing. Liverpool won the competition under Rafa Benitez, coming back in the all famous night at Istanbul. Okay, I am well out of my boundaries labelling Liverpool as an underdog but AC Milan were clear favourites to win the competition that night and when they went 3:0 up it seemed like they would. But Liverpool re-wrote the script and made history that has probably been the biggest talking point of the Merseyside club in the last 10 years. One can always expect upsets in the Champions League.
That’s what makes it the most prestigious club competition in Europe. Who would have expected Bayern Munich to score 7 against a Barcelona side? Who would have thought the very next year, Bayern would bow out of the competition, humiliated by Real Madrid thanks to faulty tactics from arguably an overhyped manager. Who would have thought the same manager would rectify his mistakes and come back stronger the next year, only for his glory moments to be ruined by injury issues at the club? Okay wait. The last point is quite cliché but you get my drift.
Last week, the world came to know of the groups for this season and some of the possible options are just mouth-watering to even just speculate. But to take a look at the teams taking part, there are quite a few underdogs capable of repeating Porto’s fairy-tale. Seviila, the team which qualified by winning the Europa League, have a similar platform and backstory as Porto had. Managed by a shrewd Unai Emery, the Spanish club could go all the way. They even have the players for it, though they sold their goal machine to AC Milan, Ukranian winger Konoplyankha does bring in the flair that will and should carry them a long way. Lyon have managed to keep hold of their striker and stars like Nabil Fekir. The French side can have a promising campaign if the draw suits them but they for sure won’t go all the way to win the competition, as they lack that tactical edge that managers like Emery has or Porto had under Emery.
This is the same issue that Wolfsburg face too. They no longer have Kevin De Bruyne with them and the German side would need to concentrate only on the Champions League if they even want to make it as far as the Quarter Final stage let alone win it. Other than these, there are promising teams such as AS Roma and Arsenal but we know their story. Come February, half the starting 11 will be listening to violin bands playing soothing music besides their hospital beds, while pocketing heavy wages.
I probably will get some stick for this but Manchester United are quite the underdog in this years competition. They made it to the group stages but are still working on with this new squad of theirs. They lack heavily in defensive options but are well stocked in the flanks are central mid regions. A lot of pressure is on the shoulders of Wayne Rooney who recently broke his goal draught with a hat-trick in the Champions League qualifier against Club Brugge. But to win this competition and challenge for the Premier League title, United probably don’t have it in them. But you can never be sure of anything with Manchester United and the same applies for Louis Van Gaal. But if they do manage to win the Champions League this season, then it is an underdog success story. Maybe not on the same levels as of Porto but it will be a season that everyone will talk about for many years to come. They only have to hope it is not the only BIG thing they get to talk about for the next 10 years like one of their major rivals.
To conclude on a very personal and biased stand, I’d like to say I wish no underdog wins it this year cause I hope Pep leaves Bayern Munich on a respectable note as he gets the satisfaction of achieving all the goals he set himself when he signed up with us, but that being said, if not Bayern I hope we miss out to an underdog.
Written by Alankirth Shankar