Five of the greatest ‘backs to the wall’ Champions League victories

With this season’s Champions League competition on hiatus, there’s an opportunity to look back at some of the big performances in recent years when the chips were down.

Chelsea v Barcelona (semi-final, 2012)

Chelsea led by former midfielder Roberto Di Matteo, who was in charge on a temporary basis, overcame Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona who were reigning European champions 3-2 to secure a place in the final against Bayern Munich.

Chelsea unsurprisingly surrendered most of the possession to the Catalans over the two legs, 28% at home in Stamford Bridge and 27% away at the Nou Camp.

Barcelona had six shots on target in London, five on target at home, Alexis Sanchez hitting the crossbar in the first leg, Lionel Messi missing a penalty and hitting the butt of the post in the second half at the Nou Camp.

That being said, Roberto Di Matteo who had replaced Andre Villas-Boas as head coach, led Chelsea to the final where they would overcome Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, after Didier Drogba put ‘the blues’ in front just before half time in London, to take a 1-0 lead to Spain for the second leg.

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Barça turned things around through first-half goals by Sergio Busquets followed by a typically stylish Andes Iniesta finish and were now in a seemingly comfortable position, 2-1 ahead on aggregate.

A beautiful chip by Ramires just before half-time put Chelsea back in the driving seat, 2-2 on aggregate, away goal in the bag.

Chelsea who were now operating without a centre-back of any description after Gary Cahill was substituted through injury early in the game and John Terry was sent-off for kneeing Alexis Sanchez into the back off the ball.

That Chelsea held on in the second half is testament to the ten men who defended heroically, rode their luck, put their bodies on the line and perhaps got the rub of the green.

As Gary Neville had said throughout the game in his Sky Sports co-commentary role ‘it was written in the stars’ that Chelsea would progress and that came to pass when Fernando Torres, on as a late substitute raced away to round Victor Valdes and level on the night 2-2 in injury time, to send the Londoners through 3-2 on aggregate.

To pick out a standout player would be a disservice to the ten men who got Chelsea over the line that night, but this was the time of peak Ashley Cole and he made several brilliant interventions over the two legs.

Inter Milan v Barcelona (semi-final, 2010)

José Mourinho’s Inter Milan side recorded a 3-2 aggregate over Barcelona at the Semi-Final stage of the 09-10 season.

While this was a win against a reigning European Champion and many football observers’ choice as greatest team of the modern European era, Inter under Mourinho had some quality players.

Julio Cesar in goal, Maicon and Javier Zanetti as full-backs, Walter Samuel, Lucio and Marco Matterazzi to choose from at centre-back.

Thiago Motta and Esteban Cambiasso at the base of midfield, screening for the likes of prime Wesley Sneijder, Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito providing the attacking threat.

This was no mish mash squad of average players, there was strength and technical ability for Mourinho to work with and work with them he did.

A brilliant counter-attacking display by Inter in the first leg at the San Siro, winning 3-1, goals from Sneijder, Maicon and Milito after Pedro had given Barça the lead, had Inter in a strong position heading in to the second leg.

Barcelona as was always the case at the time dominated possession, 71% in the first leg but they just about shaded shots on target, six attempts to Inter’s four.

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The second leg at the Nou Camp was a different story, however. The Catalans had 86% possession, had 20 shots at goal to Inter’s solitary attempt.

Inter hung on in there, defending heroically, despite being down to ten men after losing Thiago Motta to a red card early in the game after an altercation with Sergio Busquets.

The authenticity of the Spanish midfielder’s injury/discomfort was questionable as he lay on the heavily watered Nou Camp turf, but it was enough to see Motta out of the game.

Despite conceding to a Gerard Pique goal ten minutes from the end and a Bojan goal disallowed soon after, Inter prevailed, leading to Mourinho celebrating enthusiastically on the pitch afterwards, his side progressing to face Bayern Munich at the Bernabeau in the final.

It’s quite difficult to pick out a standout player over the two legs but special mention for Javier Zanetti, the Argentinian adored by the Inter faithful was at his consistent best, Sneijder and Diego Milito making significant contributions also.

Chelsea v Bayern Munich (final, 2012)

Following on from our look at Chelsea’s improbable victory over Barcelona at the Semi-Final stage, their reward was a place in the final against Jupp Heyncke’s Bayern Munich in their own stadium, the Allianz Arena.

Bayern had 64% of possession, 17 shots altogether, 6 on target while Chelsea only had 3 shots in total, all on target.

The Germans, who were playing in front of their home crowd and were strong favourites, played as if the weight of expectancy was a heavy load to carry.

Mario Gomez who was having an impressive season in front of goal for the Bavarians, 12 goals in the Champions League alone, was having one of those nights, snatching at chances, unable to finish as he had done all year.

Thomas Mueller headed Heyncke’s charges in front ten minutes before the end before Didier Drogba powered home a Juan Mata corner past Manuel Neuer at the death, to force extra-time.

Drogba then took on the villain role when taking down Franck Ribery in the first period of extra-time, Arjen Robben hit the resultant penalty meekly to his right and it was comfortably saved by Petr Cech.

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While Bayern were profligate in front of goal, Chelsea minus the services of captain John Terry, defended superbly on the night, got some breaks along the way but toughed it out and forced a penalty shootout, Drogba scoring the winner after Cech had saved from Ivica Olic and superbly from Bastian Schweinsteiger.

Gary Neville had been saying ‘it was written in the stars’ during the semi-final win against Barcelona, the final was further proof that Chelsea, after many near misses over the previous decade, perhaps had their name on the trophy that season.

A penalty miss by both Barcelona and Bayern, in the semi and the final respectively, their captain and leader John Terry sent off early at Barcelona and without him for the final, a temporary manager with minimal experience in Roberto Di Matteo, Chelsea overcame a number of set-backs to claim the trophy in 2012.

To choose a standout player in the final, again it is difficult to pick just one, Didier Drogba was the match winner and his goal provided Chelsea with a lifeline but Peter Cech was in top form in goals and kept them in the game throughout.

Ashley Cole showed leadership at the back in John Terry’s absence and made his standard number of important interventions throughout.

Atletico Madrid v Bayern Munich (semi-final, 2016)

Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid side progressed to the final where they would face city rivals Real Madrid in Milan after overcoming Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich.

The tie finished 2-2 on aggregate and Atleti advanced thanks to the away goals rule.

This encounter was the perfect contrast in management styles, Guardiola’s side dominating possession in both legs, 74% at the Vicente Calderon in the first leg which Atletico won 1-0, a memorable Saul Ñiguez solo goal the difference between the sides.

Diego Simeone’s men implemented a counter-attacking approach, which has brought the Colchoneros success and most importantly trophies over the last decade under the Argentine’s tenure.

Bayern slightly shaded this game with efforts on target, seven to five, however Atletico were deserving winners on the night.

The second leg in Munich was a more dominant performance from Guardiola’s men.

Thirty-three shots in total, 11 on target, Atletico had four on target, one of them a well-taken finish by Antoine Griezmann which equalised Xabi Alonso’s opener from a free kick.

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Robert Lewandowski headed the winner on the night for Bayern, but Atletico held on to go through on away goals.

Thomas Mueller also had a penalty saved by Jan Oblak, one of many important stops made by the Slovenian over the two legs.

Yet Atletico also missed a penalty, Manuel Neuer blocking Fernando Torres’s effort which was almost identical to Mueller’s previous effort.

While Bayern dominated possession over the tie as Pep Guardiola’s sides have always tended to do, Diego Simeone’s counter-attacking style proved to be just as successful in seeking to get the correct result.

Atletico more than gave as good as they got in Madrid and countered sporadically, yet effectively in Munich in the second leg.

Leading lights for Cholo’s men? Oblak was brilliant over the two legs, especially in Munich in the second game, while Diego Godin was a pillar at centre-back as always.

Atletico Madrid v Liverpool (round of 16, 2020)

This fixture was another example of Atletico implementing a counter-attacking game plan which was carried out successfully by Simeone’s men as they overcame Jurgen Klopp’s side 4-2 on aggregate.

Atletico were the better side in the first leg at the Wanda Metropolitano despite conceding 67% to the Premier Legaue leaders, winning 1-0, thanks to an early Saul Ñiguez goal from a corner.

They then proceeded to drop off and defend competently in numbers, limiting Liverpool to seven attempts at goal, none of which hit the target.

The home side, as with previous Simeone teams, countered effectively and this was by no means a performance where Atleti were hanging on.

Alvaro Morata had two wonderful chances to give the Spanish side a healthier advantage going into the second leg.

The second leg in Anfield was more of a defensive rearguard action which saw Atletico come out on top 3-2 on the night, meaning they progress to the quarter finals, 4-2 over both legs.

Liverpool had 64% possession, 35 attempts at goal, 12 on target, Atletico just ten attempts but six were on target.

While it wouldn’t go down as one of the Madrid side’s best defensive performances of the Simeone era, they still got enough bodies in the way to ensure the home side hadn’t many clear-cut chances at goal.

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Jan Oblak was very assured in goal as always, but his range of saves didn’t have to be from the top drawer as many of Liverpool’s attempts were taken under pressure or were at times rushed efforts.

A significant extra component was necessary to get the win as well as the concentrated defensive effort by Simeone’s men, who were attempting to shut down a Liverpool side who, at the time of the second leg were 25 points clear at the summit of the Premier League.

The home side were also back playing to a very high level throughout the second leg, crisp passing and fast attacking play which had the visitors just about hanging in there particularly in the second half.

Hang in there they did and that extra component that peak Simeone sides have always possessed was evident as the last two Atletico goals were swift and devastating counterattacks, expertly finished by Marcos Llorente and Alvaro Morata.

Jan Oblak surely put his hand up as is almost always the case as Atletico’s leading man on the night while Marcos Llorente two goals were lethally dispatched.

Some observations about some similar patterns that occurred in the five games mentioned.

The two Atletico Madrid wins and the Inter Milan victory came about as a result of detailed planning by their respective coaches, Diego Simeone and José Mourinho.

At stages over the two legs of these games, Atletico and Inter were under intense pressure and may have got a break or two in keeping out the opposition.

Perhaps the confidence of the team defending grows and their resolve becomes stronger as they see their opponent miss a chance, grow frustrated at their shortcomings in front of goal, it’s an adrenaline shot to dig in more, help out your teammate beside you in repelling attack after attack.

That being said, when the opportunity arises to counter, they have to be efficient with whatever chances come their way.

Inter took their chances that came their way in the first leg at home to Barcelona in 2010, a 3-1 win, something to hold on to.

Atletico got a crucial away goal at Bayern in the semi-final in 2016, Antoine Griezmann finishing smartly in the counter.

This game plan calls for efficiency in front of goal, Atletico had ten shots in total at Anfield, six on target, three goals, impressive numbers.

Also, the fact that these goals were registered on the counterattack, the opposition lack bodies in defence, are a lot of the time out of position and the attackers have more time to compose themselves before they strike.

The Chelsea wins in 2012 cannot be put down to a game plan by a coach with a track record of playing to a specific system.

While Roberto Di Matteo was in temporary charge at the time, the semi-final and victory in the final can also be attributed to a strong defence, minus regulars, a goalkeeper at the top of his game and forwards who took their chances, Torres in the semi and Didier Drogba in the final.

Good defending is a skill just as ball retention is a skill and the sides mentioned could all do that to a very good level.

Hard work, a desire to win and sheer force of effort in attempting to achieve your goal may also get you to your objective, provided the players at a manager’s disposal have the required level to win big games.

Like in all sports, different teams go about achieving their goals and targets in a manner which best suits them and which they feel will get them to the prize, whether it’s a backs to the wall approach or on the front foot.

The Author

John Dillon

Twitter handle @dillo10

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