The first round of the UEFA Champions League qualifying stages came to a close on Tuesday. But while for most the excitement starts around August and September, when the group stage draws and matches begin, for the smaller clubs that have to go through various qualifying rounds Champions League is already quite in full swing. Since its re-branding from European Cup to Champions League in the 1992-93 season, there have only been a few clubs that were able to impress without the luxury of an automatic group stage qualification.
We take a look at the top 10 clubs that were able to make an impressive run from the qualifying stages of the Champions League.
#10 - MFK Košice (Slovakia) 1997-98
In the 1996-97 season, Košice had won the Slovak Superliga for the first time. This title win provided the small club from a town of just about 240,000 people and a 9,000 capacity stadium with a spot in the 1997-98 season UEFA Champions League first qualifying round. In the first qualifying round they would face the (then) 17 time Icelandic champions club ÍA. MFK Košice won both the home (3-0) and away (1-0) legs, to go on in the competition. But while ÍA is not much of a challenge even for a small club from Košice, the draw saw the Slovaks draw against Russian club Spartak Moscow, with few giving Košice any chance of progressing further. MFK would win the first leg at home 2-1, conceding the all too dangerous away goal. But in Moscow Košice was able to hang on, winning a ticket to the Champions League group stage after a 0-0 draw.
For the groups Košice saw a draw that would have them play the biggest clubs the team had ever faced with Feyenoord, Juventus and Manchester United all drawn with them into group B. It is not surprising that the group stages is where MFK Košice's run would come to an end. With 0 points from 6 matches, Košice did manage to score twice, both goals against Italian club Juventus at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin, in a memorable 3-2 loss for this tiny club from Slovakia.
#9 - HJK Helsinki (Finland) 1998-99
Finnish club HJK Helsinki is very popular in their native country having won 19 domestic titles prior to the 1998-99 Champions League season (and 7 more titles since). But although they have competed in European club tournaments since the 1960's, Helsinki was never able to progress more than two rounds in any of them. In 1998-99 that would all change. With a spot in the very first round of Champions League qualifying after yet another Finish title in 1997, Helsinki drew Armenian club FC Yerevan. Defeating Yerevan with an aggregate score of 5-0 over the two legs, Helsinki went on to round two to face French club FC Metz. In the first leg on home soil, HJK managed to come out with a slim 1-0 victory thanks to an own goal from Metz defender Jeff Strasser. After a 1-1 draw at the away ground, the Finnish club was off to the group stages, and their first ever third stage appearance in a European club tournament.
Drawn into group F with German club Kaiserslautern, Portugal's Benfica and Dutch outfit PSV Eindhoven, HJK Helsinki's run would come to an end, but not before a few impressive performances by the heavy underdogs. After losing by a slim 2-1 margin in their first group match in Eindhoven, HJK got their first ever group stage point after a 0-0 draw at home against Kaiserslautern. Helsinki used the momentum from the previous draw and defeated Portuguese side Benfica in their following match 2-0. After a 2-2 draw with SL Benfica in Portugal, Finnish hopes for qualifications were realistic. But a 3-1 defeat to PSV and a 5-2 trashing in Kaiserslautern saw the end of what is to this day Helsinki's deepest Champions League run.
#8 - Sparta Prague (Czech Republic) 2003-04
Storied Czech club Sparta Prague has had major domestic success with 29 league titles before the 03-04 season, and prior to the re-branding of the major European tournament have had some impressive runs in the European club circuit as well. But after an unimpressive performance against Macedonian club Vardar in the third qualifying round of the 2003-04 Champions League season, in which they managed to progress by a slim aggregate margin of 5-4, few thought of the Czech club as a favorite to progress past the group stages where they were drawn with Turkish side Beşiktaş, Italian capital city club Lazio and London's Chelsea FC. But despite the tough opposition, Sparta Prague put together a string of solid performances in group G.
After losing at home in their first group match to Chelsea by a score of 1-0, Sparta Prague went on to collect 4 of 6 points in their next two matches with a 2-2 draw in Rome against Lazio and a 2-1 home victory over Beşiktaş. And even though they would lose their next match against the Turkish side in Istanbul, the Czechs picked up another 4 points with a 0-0 draw in London and a 1-0 victory over Lazio in Prague, with a goal in the added time frame.
Sparta Prague's second place finish in their group drew them against Italian giants AC Milan for the round of 16. After a promising 0-0 draw in Prague however, Milan and star-man Andriy Shevchenko would eliminate the Czechs from the tournament with a 4-1 victory at the San Siro, with the Ukrainian striker scoring twice.
#7 - F.C. København (Denmark) 2010-11
Since its foundation in 1992, FC Kobenhavn had won 7 domestic titles and have participated in 7 European tournaments prior to the 2010-11 Champions League season. Prior to this year however, the club from Copenhagen has never been able to reach the round of 16, qualifying for the group stage just once before, finishing in last place in their group in the 2006-07 edition of the tournament. But time around the Danes would embark on their deepest Champions League run to this date.
Starting the tournament in the third qualifying round FC Kobenhavn drew Belarus club BATE Borisov 0-0 in Barysaw, Belarus. In Copenhagen the home club took a 2-0 lead early in the first half, just to see it wiped off by two BATE goals in a span of 4 minutes, also before the half time whistle. About half hour from being eliminated from the tournament, Kobenhavn's Senegalese striker Dame N'Doye put the home side ahead and guaranteed progress to the "play-off" qualification round.
In the play-off round Kobenhavn drew Norwegian side Rosenborg, and after trailing 2-0 in their first leg meeting in Norway, Kobenhavn's Jesper Grønkjær scored the all important away goal with just minutes left on the clock. Grønkjær's goal would prove to be the reason for Kobenhavn's progress to the group stages, as the Danish side managed to win 1-0 at home, and qualify to the next stage via the away-goal rule.
Drawn into a group with Greek champions Panathinaikos, Russian title holders Rubin Kazan and Spanish La Liga winners Barcelona (all of which qualified directly into the group stage), Kobenhavn seemed destined to fail after their less than impressive performances in the previous rounds. But in their very first match, a home-field affair against Kazan, the Danish side showed character and it was N'Doye the hero once more, scoring in the 87th minute to give his side a 1-0 victory. In their second match Kobenhavn impressed on the road with a 2-0 victory in Athens. In their next three matches the club from Denmark only managed to collect 1 of available 9 points with losses in Barcelona and at home to Rubin Kazan, with the only point coming against the Spanish side in Copenhagen via a 1-1 heroic draw. In their last group match Kobenhavn would see off Greek side Panathinaikos in impressive fashion at the Parken Stadium in Denmark, with a 3-1 victory over the Greeks FC Kobenhavn were on their way to the round of 16 for the very first (and still the only) time.
FC Kobenhavn would go on to lose in the round of 16 to English club Chelsea FC; a 2-0 aggregate loss after a home defeat which saw Nicolas Anelka score twice.
#6 - Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) 1997-98
Ukrainian side Dynamo Kyiv won their domestic championship the year before, and given Ukraine's league low European standing at the time the Ukrainian champions had to enter the 1997-98 Champions League season in the very first round of qualifications. In the firsrt round they were drawn against a less than popular opponent in Welsh side Barry Town. The Ukrainians did not have much trouble in either of the two legs, even though striker Andriy Shevchenko was not in the line-up for both matches.
In the second round of qualifications the club from the Ukrainian capital were paired up with Denmark's champions Brøndby IF. Shevchenko, now in the starting eleven would score Dynamo's second goal in their first leg match in Denmark and Kyiv would go on to lay a heavy 4-2 away defeat on the hosts. Dynamo lost the home portion of the two legs 1-0, but qualified to the group stages on a 4-3 aggregate score.
In the groups, Dynamo Kyiv were drawn with La Liga runner-ups Barcelona, Premier League second place club Newcastle United and Dutch champions PSV Eidhoven. Progress to the next round seemed unrealistic. But the Ukrainian club started bright, with a surprise 3-1 win over PSV in Eindhoven and a 2-2 draw with Newcastle United in Kyiv. But the next two matches, would be the ones that would set the tone for the Ukrainian club and would be remembered by Dynamo fans for ever.
In their first of two matches against Spanish side Barcelona, the Ukrainian played very well on home soil and surprised the Catalan giants with a 3-0 victory in front of 100,000 people at the Olympic stadium in Kyiv. Two weeks later they were guests at the Camp Nou and the hosts were looking for revenge. But 21 year old striker by the name of Andriy Shevchenko had other ideas. "Sheva" scored three times in the first half, with his team leading 3-0 before the half-time whistle. The shocked Spanish side could not muster any kind of serious threat and after another Dynamo goal in the second half, the final score read 4-0 in favor of the Ukrainians.
Dynamo went on to draw PSV Eidhoven and lost at St. James' park to Newcastle United, but even that was enough to clinch first place in their group C and progress to the quarter finals.
In the quarters, Dynamo were drawn against 24 time Italian champions Juventus. After a promising 1-1 draw at the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin however, the Ukrainians could not better or even equal their previous performances as they were defeated handily by the Italians with a final score of 4-1 and a hat-trick from Filippo Inzaghi.
#5 - Galatasaray (Turkey) 2000-01
The most successful club in Turkey, lead by Romanian manager Mircea Lucescu, Galatasaray was placed directly into the third qualifying Champions League round in 2000-01 after winning their domestic league in the previous season. But although their run to the quarter finals may seem not as impressive after skipping the first two rounds of qualifying, the Champions League format during the 2000-01 campaign consisted of two group stages which the Turks had to go through, which meant that they played 16 matches in total.
In the third qualifying round Galatasaray faced Swiss side St. Gallen, who they managed to defeat by a 4-3 aggregate score and qualify to the first group stage. In group D Galatasaray would face Scottish side Rangers, Sturm Graz from Austria and French outfit AS Monaco. Defeating Monaco 3-2 in Istanbul, the Turks got off to a good start, but their campaign took a blow in their second match in Graz, losing the Austrians 3-0. Galatasaray would win at home again, and again by a score of 3-2 this time they were victorious over Scotland's Glasgow Rangers. At the away fixture in Glasgow, Galatasaray managed to pick up a 0-0 draw, a scoreless tie which would prove crucial to their progress into the next round.
In Monaco, Galatasaray would go on to lose 4-2 to the French club and then a 2-2 draw against Sturm Graz at home. With six group matches played, Galatasaray were tied with the Rangers for second spot with the Rangers having the advantage on goal differential. But the Turks would qualify to the next round ahead of the Scottish club due to head-to-head record, which was higher ranked criteria at that time.
In the second group stage Galatasaray were drawn into group B with Spanish side Deportivo La Coruna, Italian giants AC Milan and another French club Paris Saint-German. Picking up 7 of 9 available points in their first three matches with an away draw in Milan and two 1-0 home victories over PSG and Deportivo, Galatasaray were sitting at the top of their table, with Milan in second, La Coruna in third and Paris in last place.
But the following three match-days would change the group around. Galatasaray only manage to pick up 3 points, winning again at home against the Italians, while losing both away fixtures, finishing second in their group, with Deportivo qualifying to the next round as group winners and Milan together with PSG eliminated from the tournament.
In the quarter finals, Galatasaray would face Spanish titans Real Madrid. In the first leg in Istanbul Galatasaray would pull off a comeback win that would go in the history books of the European club competition. Down 2-0 in the first half, Lucescu's men were firing on all cylinders in the second 45. With goals from Ümit Davala, Hasan Şaş and Brazilian striker Jardel, the Turks were heading to the Bernabéu with a shock one goal advantage. In the away fixture however Galatasaray's run would end as the Spanish side would be much stronger in front of their home crowd, defeating the Turkish side 3-0 and eliminating them from the competition.
#4 - Panathinaikos (Greece) 2001-02
One year after Galatasaray's impressive run to the quarter finals, it was another Mediterranean club that would go through the exact same stages and also fall to an eventual defeat at the hands of a Spanish club. This time however it was Greek side Panathinaikos who also had to start their journey at the third qualifying stage of the tournament.
Their first opponent was Czech side Slavia Prague, whom the Greeks manage to defeat both at home (1-0) and away (2-1) to qualify for the first group stage of the competition.
Drawn into group C, Panathinaikos would have to go through some very tough opposition with German side Schalke 04, Spain's Mallorca and English Premier League runner-ups Arsenal. Panathinaikos opened their group stage campaign in style, shocking the club football world with three straight victories. With a 2-0 win in Germany, a similar scoreline in their home victory against Mallorca and a 1-0 victory over Arsenal in Athens, the Greeks were first in their group with maximum amount of points accumulated.
The next three matches would prove a bit more difficult as the Greeks lost 2-1 in London. But after another 2-0 victory on home ground against their German group-mates, the 1-0 loss in Mallorca would mean nothing as Panathinaikos were off to the next round as group winners.
In the second group stage the opposition yet again was quite tough. Drawn again into group C, Panathinaikos were to face Czech club Sparta Prague, Portuguese champions FC Porto and Spanish title holders Real Madrid. In their first match, a home meeting with Porto the Greeks held on to a 0-0 draw. But on their trip to Madrid, the Greeks suffered a one-sided 3-0 loss against the Spanish champions. In Prague, Panathinaikos got back to winning ways, defeating the local club Sparta by a final score of 2-0.
They would defeat the Czechs again in Athens, but could not hold-off Porto in Portugal, losing 2-1. In their final group match the Greeks face Real Madrid again, and after an unlikely 2-2 draw, stamped their ticket to the quarter finals, where they would face another Spanish giants, Barcelona.
Panathinaikos's quarter final match-up began with an incredible result. Their first leg fixture in Athens ended with a 1-0 victory after a goal from the penalty spot by Angelos Basinas, sending the Greeks to Barcelona with a win and no away goals conceded. At the Camp Nou, Panathinaikos striker Michalis Konstantinou put the visitors ahead after just 8 minutes, and a shock result looked likely with the Greeks leading 2-0 on aggregate and having an away goal. Only three or more goals could spoil the Greek party on the day, three goals the Catalans would manage to achieve. Luis Enrique scored one before the half, and then another just after the restart. And with about a half hour from the final whistle, Argentine striker Javier Saviola sent the away fans home in tears, and Panathinaikos FC out of the tournament.
#3 - Dynamo Kyiv (Ukraine) 1998-99
The only club making our list twice is Ukrainian side Dynamo Kiev. Just one year after their incredible run from the first qualifying stage to the tournament, all the way to the quarter finals, the Ukrainians managed to better their performance in the 1998-99 edition of the tournament.
Drawn again into the very first qualifying round, and oddly enough again against Welsh champions Barry Town, Dynamo Kyiv managed to humiliate Barry ever more than in the previous season, winning their two-leg draw by an aggregate score of 10-1 after an 8-0 home win in the first leg.
The second qualifying round proved to be a bit more difficult when Dynamo faced Czech outfit Sparta Prague. After losing their home match 1-0, the Ukrainians managed to defeat Sparta with an identical result in Czech Republic. And after a scoreless extra-time period, the match would be settled via the penalty-shootouts. Dynamo Kyiv's goalkeeper Olexandr Shovkovskiy would prove to be the hero on the day, saving three straight Sparta Prague kicks to give his squad a 3-1 penalty-kicks victory and a place in the Champions League group stages.
Dynamo was drawn into group E with English side Arsenal, Greek club Panathinaikos and French outfit RC Lens. But with only group winner guaranteed a spot in the quarter finals, and Dynamo picking up a lousy 2 of available 9 points in their first three matches, their chances of progress seemed very slim, sitting at the very bottom of the table after a loss in Greece, a draw at home against Lens and a 1-1 draw in London.
But like on so few occasions in the world of football, during the next three match-days of the group stages, the stars would align oh so perfectly for the Ukrainian club. In their home ground match against London club Arsenal, the Ukrainians pulled off an incredible 3-1 victory. At a home fixture against Panathinaikos the Ukrainians were down 1-0, but managed to win 2-1 after a goal from Serhiy Rebrov and a late own-goal from Panathinaikos midfielder Angelos Basinas. And in their last group match, the Ukrainians defeated French side RC Lens 3-1 in an away fixture that saw Dynamo score all three goals in the second half. With maximum points won in their last three matches, Dynamo Kyiv were head of their group and heading for a quarter finals meeting with Champions League defending champions Real Madrid.
In the first quarter final leg in Madrid, Shevchenko would prove to be a hero giving his side a 1-0 lead, and although the final score was 1-1, the Ukrainians scored the all important away goal and were heading home full of confidence. In Kiev, home side Dynamo dominated. And with Andriy Shevchenko scoring twice in the second half of the match, the defending champions were eliminated by a 3-1 aggregate, while the Ukrainian club were off to the semi finals to face German side Bayern Munich.
In the semis Dynamo's first leg home match against Munich started off well. Dynamo Kyiv were holding a 3-1 lead over their German opposition in the 50th minute. But Bayern came out strong after Kyiv's third goal and managed to draw the match up at 3-3. Going into their second leg fixture in Munich, the Ukrainians knew that they let an opportunity slip in their previous match. This was in fact true, as Dynamo would go on to lose 1-0 in the Olympic Stadium in Munich and were eliminated from the competition after an amazing run from the very first stage of qualifying.
#2 - Villarreal (Spain) 2005-06
After finishing in third place in La Liga during the 2004-05 campaign, Villarreal were place in the third qualifying round against English Premier League side Everton FC. With the likes of Juan Pablo Sorín and Diego Forlan in their line-up, the Spanish side would go on an incredible run in the 2005-06 edition of the Champions League tournament.
Against Everton, Villarreal did not experience too much trouble, winning both the home and away fixture by an identical 2-1 score-line. However, after being drawn into group D with Portuguese champions Benfica, French runner-ups Lille and English Premier League giants Manchester United, it seemed extremely unlikely that the men in yellow kits could possibly progress to the round of 16 of the competition.
Villarreal would neither lose nor win in their first three matches, drawing Manchester 0-0 at home, Lille with the same score in France and picking up a 1-1 draw on home soil against Lille as well. In their fourth group match in Lisbon against Portuguese side Benfica, Villarreal had their first group stage win, thanks to a 81st minute goal from Marcos Senna. Villarreal would record another draw in Manchester and yet another 1-0 late goal win, this time against Lille. The Spanish, finishing first in their group were off to play against Scottish champions Glasgow Rangers.
Leading 2-1 in their first leg in Glasgow, Villarreal's Bolivian center-back Juan Manuel Peña scored an own-goal with just 8 minutes to go in the match, giving the Scottish club hopes of progression into the quarter finals. But with a 1-1 draw in Spain thanks to a game-tying goal from Argentine full-back Rodolfo Arruabarrena, Villarreal advanced to the quarters, where they would face Italian club Inter Milan.
In Italy, Uruguayan striker Diego Forlan gave Villarreal the advantage in just the first minute. But goals from Milan's Adriano and Obefami Martins gave Inter a 2-1 win after the first leg. Back at home in Spain the Spanish club was confident, and with a crucial goal from Arruabarrena again, Villarreal were 1-0 winners and advanced to the semi finals of the competition on 3-3 aggregate due to their away goal in Italy.
In the semis they faced tough opposition, playing English club Arsenal. A 1-0 loss in London would prove to be the dagger as neither club managed to score in the second leg, sending Villarreal out of the competition with a 1-0 aggregate loss.
#1 - APOEL FC (Cyprus) 2011-12
Hands down the most impressive run in modern day Champions League play was that of Cypriot club APOEL FC from Nicosia.
Following their domestic title win the previous year, APOEL were to start in the second qualifying stage of the Champions League, as is always the case for the champions of Cyprus since the format has changed to accomodate only a few match-ups in the first round, between the champions of very small nations such as Faroe Islands, Malta etc.,
In their first two-leg match-up APOEL faced Albanian champions Skënderbeu Korçë. Defeating the Albanian side 2-0 on the road, and again 4-0 at home in Nicosia, the Cypriots were off to the third round to face Slovakia's champions ŠK Slovan Bratislava.
Against the club from Bratislava, APOEL could not manage to score in the first-leg fixture at home. But a solid performance on the road capped off with a 2-0 victory, sent APOEL through yet another round. This time to the "play-off" qualifying round (last round before group stages), to play against Polish side Wisła Kraków, who also started the competition from the second qualifying stage.
After a 1-0 loss in Kraków it seemed like the end of the road has come for the champions of Cyprus. Having not scored an away goal, APOEL were facing an uphill battle if they were to qualify for the group stages. The match against Wisła in Nicosia started off well for the hosts, going up 1-0 and tying the aggregate score at 1-1 after half hour of play. In the second half, and with about 35 minutes left in the match APOEL's Brazilian striker Aílton scored their second, giving the home team a 2-1 aggregate advantage that would potentially send them to the next round. But in the 71st minute, shock to the home supporters as Wisła Kraków's midfielder Cezary Wilk put the ball in the back of the net and gave his team the advantage with an away goal less than 20 minutes from the final whistle. Nicosia would celebrate however, when none other than Aílton scored his second of the match and the goal that would seal the faith of both clubs on the day, just 3 minutes from final-time, to give his club a 3-2 aggregate win, and a surprise appearance in the Champions League's group stages.
Drawing Russian champions Zenit St. Petersburg, Ukrainian title holder Shakhtar Donetsk and Portuguese champions Porto in their group G, many thought that the Cypriot club would be content with just having made this prestigious round of the European competition. But APOEL showed strength and resilience that would change the minds of many experts, and create a remarkable "Cinderella story" for this year's Champion League season.
After being down 1-0 to Zenit in Nicosia, APOEL managed to score twice in their first group match to overturn the score and come out with a 2-1 victory. Drawing 1-1 in their next two matches against Shakhtar and Porto away from home, the club from Nicosia were already raising eyebrows around the footballing world.
In their fourth group match APOEL had a 1-0 lead over Portuguese champions Porto for more than 45 minutes until the referee awarded a penalty for the Portuguese in the 89th minute. Hulk converted the spot-kick for Porto but about one minute later APOEL would record an unlikely victory when their own Brazilian Gustavo Manduca scored just before the final whistle.
APOEL would go on to draw in Saint Petersburg, and their final group match 2-0 loss to Shakhtar was nothing but a small blemish in the record books, as the Cypriots claimed first place in their group and advanced to the round of 16 to face French outfit Lyon.
APOEL would lose their first-leg match against Lyon in France by a final score of 1-0. But in the second match, on home soil that Cypriots would surprise again, with their own 1-0 victory over the strong French side, taking the match to be resolved in penalty-kicks. With Lyon shooting first, both teams managed to score their initial 3 shots. Lyon's fourth striker was Alexandre Lacazette, but with APOEL's goalkeeper Dionisios Chiotis picking the correct corner to save the shot and striker Ivan Tričkovski scoring APOEL's fourth attempt, all eyes were on Lyon's Michel Bastos who had to score to keep his squad in this match. Bastos shot the same way as Lacazette, going to the right, but again Chiotis guessed correctly and just like that APOEL's sensational run continued into the quarter finals.
In the quarters, APOEL faced the impossible challenge of trying to go through Spanish giants Real Madrid. Their remarkable Champions League run would be stopped by a somewhat humiliating fashion, losing 3-0 at home and then 5-2 in Madrid for a one-sided 8-2 aggregate loss. But although the final result against Real Madrid was in fact very sour, APOEL FC's incredible progress in the 2011-12 Champions league season would be remembered for many years as one of (if not the) most unlikely surprises in modern European club tournament history.