The importance of scoring the first goal in a game of soccer is often drilled home these days, with the team who scores first regularly going on to win the game. In the Premier League over the last 10 years, 80% of teams leading at half-time went on to win the game. However, this article is concerned with encounters which didn’t quite go to the script, and more specifically with the most outrageous and unexpected comebacks in the history of the sport.
It is an age-old adage in soccer that it “only takes a second to score a goal”, and whilst there is much truth in such a statement, it is very rare for teams to battle back from deficits of three or more goals. Having said that, whether it be through complacency or an inspired half-time team talk, on rare occasions, incredible comebacks do happen. A great comeback can often epitomize all of the best aspects of the sport; encompassing the highs, lows, ecstasy and deflation that come with the roller-coaster that is a game of soccer.
This list is focused on the top 10 in-game comebacks in soccer history. The criteria which has been used to decide what makes a truly great comeback include: the stage; that is to say the importance of the fixture and occasion in which the turnaround took place, the scoreline; simply the amount of goals overturned in achieving the comeback, and lastly, the teams involved; the unexpected comeback of a lesser-fancied team accentuates the greatness of the comeback on some occasions.
10. Reading 5-7 Arsenal
We start this list with a 12-goal thriller that came in the League Cup in 2012. Reading led the Gunners 4-0 after just 37 minutes and were good value for their lead. Theo Walcott pulled one back for Arsene Wenger’s side on the cusp of half-time but few could have predicted what was to follow. Olivier Giroud gave Arsenal fans a glimmer of hope when he made it 4-2, but that remained the scoreline until the 89th minute. Then Koscielny struck before Walcott scored again in the fifth minute of injury time to take the game into extra-time. Chamakh made it 5-4, only for Reading to find another goal and level things once more. Finally, in the last minute of extra time, Arsenal ended an extraordinary game in extraordinary fashion scoring twice to win the game 7-5 AET.
9. Porto 4-3 Wrexham (4-4 aggregate, Wrexham advances on away goals)
Wrexham shouldn’t really have even been in the Cup Winners’ Cup, having lost the final of the Welsh Cup, but made the tournament by virtue of Shrewsbury being part of England. A club in disarray, Wrexham were in the Fourth Division at the time with only 14 players on their books, three of whom were teenagers. They should have been no match for the Portuguese giants of Porto then, but remarkably won the first leg 1-0 at home. Normal service seemed to have been resumed in the second leg as Porto raced into a 3-0 lead. Wrexham clawed two goals back but a fourth by Porto seemed to have cancelled them out until the last minute, when Barry Horne struck to send Wrexham through on away goals in a remarkable turn of events.
8. Newcastle 4-4 Arsenal
We’re only on our third entry, and already Arsenal have made a second appearance. Unlike the first though, this will be one Gunners fans will want to forget. Up 4-0 and flying at the break, they seemed to have established an unassailable lead. However, when Abou Diaby was given his marching orders shortly after the restart, the tide of the game began to turn as Newcastle grew into the game. Two Joey Barton penalties and a Leon Best strike had put the Magpies back within touching distance of taking something from the game before Cheick Tiote pulled out a wonder-strike, sending a cannon of a shot past the Arsenal goalkeeper in the 86th minute to complete a tremendous Newcastle turnaround.
7. Tottenham 3-4 Manchester City
Coming back from a 3-0 losing position at half-time is never easy, but it’s even trickier when you have to do it with 10 men, although that’s exactly what Manchester City did against Tottenham back in 2004. The FA Cup is known for pulling up bizarre results and occurrences, and so it proved once more at White Hart Lane. King, Keane and Ziege had put Spurs in a very strong position before Joey Barton saw red on the stroke of half-time but Man City came out fighting after the break. Distin, Bosvelt and Wright-Philips brought them level in incredible scenes, but more drama was to come as Jon Macken scored a 90th minute winner to complete a famous comeback for the Sky Blues.
6. Blackpool 4-3 Bolton
Known as the ‘Matthews Final’ due to the important role in which the great Sir Stanley Matthews played in the game, it was actually Stan Mortensen who scored a hat-trick, becoming the first and, to this day, the only man to have scored an FA Cup final hat-trick. Down 3-1 with 22 minutes remaining, it looked as though Blackpool would become losing FA Cup finalists for the third time in six years, but they narrowed the deficit to 3-2 in the 68th minute and a dramatic climax was to come. An 89th minute equalizer was followed by a 92nd minute winner in what is still considered to be the greatest FA Cup final in history.
5. Portugal 5-3 North Korea
It was no surprise that Portugal won their 1966 World Cup Quarter-Final against North Korea, but the fact that they came from 3-0 down, after just 25 minutes, makes it a great comeback on the greatest of world stages. Few gave the North Koreans a chance in ’66 but having beaten Italy 1-0 in the group stages, they demanded respect from the Portuguese. After 25 minutes they were three goals up, but Eusebio once more came to the rescue, scoring four goals to make it 4-3. Jose Augusto added a fifth as Portugal ran out 5-3 winners in an enthralling game at Goodison Park in Liverpool.
4. Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan
Liverpool’s comeback in the 2005 Champions League final ticks all the boxes of a legendary comeback. The stage was the final of the biggest club competition in the world, the opposition probably the finest side in Europe at the time and the deficit they had to overturn was a staggering 3-0 lead which AC Milan held at half-time. Whilst Liverpool are no minnows, the Milan team featured the likes of Cafu, Maldini, Nesta, Stam, Pirlo, Seedorf, Kaka, Shevchenko, Crespo, the list goes on, from top to bottom their team was footballing royalty. Liverpool meanwhile, featured the likes of Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Vladimir Smicer, less esteemed players with the greatest deal of respect. Inspired by Steven Gerrard, the Reds came out fighting and 3 goals in 6 minutes from Gerrard, Smicer and Alonso took the game to extra-time and eventually penalties, where Liverpool completed a famous comeback.
3. Barcelona 1-4 Metz (5-6 aggregate)
It’s difficult to quite describe how much of a shock Metz’s victory at the Nou Camp in the 1984 Cup Winners Cup really was. Barca had won 4-2 in the first leg in France and since that game Metz had lost 6-0 to Bordeaux and 7-0 to Monaco, the return leg was seen as such a foregone conclusion that no French TV or radio broadcasters bothered to travel over to Spain and the stadium was only a quarter full. When Barcelona took a 1-0 lead (5-2 on aggregate), a cricket score seemed the most likely course of events. Metz goalkeeper Michel Ettore told the press “They really looked down on us, and that made us so angry,” whether it was anger or something else, the Metz players certainly found inspiration from somewhere and in a stunning comeback they scored four goals in less than an hour of football at the Nou Camp to go through 6-5 on aggregate.
2. Charlton 7-6 Huddersfield
Any game with 13 goals is likely to be something of a classic, and Charlton against Huddersfield in 1957 was no exception. Not only did this game feature 13 goals but also a comeback of biblical proportions. Huddersfield were 5-1 ahead with only 27 minutes left on the clock when the drama really began to unfold. Johnny Summers scored his second, third, fourth and fifth goals of the game as Charlton went from 5-1 down to 6-5 ahead, but there was fight left in Huddersfield, who scored again to level the scores at 6-6. Finally, in the 89th minute, John Ryan added his second and the match winner as Charlton emerged 7-6 victors in an absolutely epic clash. Huddersfield remain the only professional team in history to score six goals in a league game and still lose.
1. Hungary 2-3 West Germany
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, a 3-2 game seems a little drab after you’ve just read about a 7-6 victory, but do not despair. West Germany’s comeback in the 1954 World Cup final, commonly referred to as the ‘Miracle of Bern’, is the greatest comeback in the sport’s history for a number of reasons. Hungary had already defeated the Germans 8-3 in the group stages and were unbeaten in over five years, as such they were huge favorites for the final. Furthermore, the Magic Magyars, as they were affectionately known, raced into a two goal lead after just eight minutes, as many expected them to romp home as they had in the group stages.
The West Germans did not buckle under though, and after just 18 minutes they were level. West Germany took the lead six minutes from time to win the World Cup in spectacular fashion against one of the greatest teams to ever grace the game.
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