Schalke & the most unlikely European semi-finalists over the years

With the German side making it through to the last four of the Champions League with their win over Inter, we take a look at the underdogs who have excelled on the big stage
The 2010-11 Champions League quarter-finals included its share of surprise quantities, featuring Tottenham, Shakhtar Donetsk, and Schalke. However, only one of the above managed to further upset the status quo: while the English and Ukrainians succumbed to Spanish duo Real Madrid and Barcelona, respectively, the Germans dethroned reigning champions Inter en route to their first ever trip to the semi-finals.

In honour of Schalke’s triumph, takes a look at the most improbable teams to reach the semi-finals (and beyond) of European Cup competitions.

Dundee, 1962-63 European Cup
Result: Lost to AC Milan in semi-final

Current Scottish First Divison side Dundee managed an improbable run to the semi-finals of the 1962-63 European Cup, a year after their first - and only - Scottish Premier League title. En route to the final, they thrashed Koln 8-1 before advancing by an 8-5 aggregate score, then overturned a 1-0 first-leg deficit against Sporting Lisbon with a 4-1 return leg victory. In the semi-final, Dundee met the same Anderlecht side that beat the Real Madrid of Ferenc Puskas and Alfredo Di Stefano earlier in the tournament. The Dark Blues managed to win both legs and advance courtesy of a 6-2 aggregate score.

Much to their dismay, Dundee’s fairytale run came to an end in the semi-final. The Scots won the second leg 1-0, but it was not enough to overturn AC Milan’s 5-1 victory at San Siro. The Italian giants, led by Cesare Maldini and Gianni Rivera, went on to beat Benfica in the final. Dundee, meanwhile, have not since finished in the top three of the SPL, while city rivals United reached the same stage of the competition in 1984.

Real Zaragoza, 1994-95 Cup Winners’ Cup
Result: Defeated Arsenal 2-1 (aet) in the final

Having won the Copa del Rey one year prior, Zaragoza qualified for European competition in the form of the Cup Winners’ Cup. In the first and second rounds they earned comfortable aggregate wins again Gloria Bistrita and Tatran Presov respectively. Next up were Feyenoord, who won the KNVB Beker four out of five years between 1991 and 1995. After losing the first leg 1-0 in Rotterdam, Zaragoza won the return leg 2-0 and advanced to the semi-finals.

Standing between the Spaniards and a trip to the final were Glenn Hoddle’s Chelsea. The spring of 1995 was before the arrival of Ruud Gullit, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli, but the Blues were in the midst of a renaissance, and proved no push-overs. Zaragoza nonetheless hammered their opponents 3-0 in the first leg, and managed to escape Stamford Bridge with a 3-1 loss, enough for them to progress 4-3 on aggregate.

In the final, Zaragoza met reigning champions Arsenal, who had defeated Parma the previous season. Juan Esnaider put the Spaniards ahead midway through the second half, but John Hartson levelled on 77 minutes, forcing extra-time. Half an hour into added time it appeared that the match was headed for penalties, but Nayim struck a last-gasp lob from 45 yards that beat David Seaman and left the Gunners stunned as Zaragoza hoisted their first - and only - European trophy.

Alaves, 2000-01 UEFA Cup
Result: Lost 5-4 (aet) to Liverpool in final

Two years after returning to the top flight for the first time in more than 40 years, Alaves managed a surprising run to claim sixth place in La Liga and a Uefa Cup berth. The following year, they finished 10th domestically, but saved their best performances for Europe. After making their way past Gaziantepspor and Lillestrom, they defeated Rosenborg 4-2 on aggregate to advance to the fourth round, where the bigger teams were amassed.

The Spaniards were given a tough test in Inter, but overcame a two-goal deficit to earn a 3-3 draw in the first leg, then won 2-0 at San Siro to advance. Alaves then progressed past fellow Spanish side Rayo Vallecano with a 4-2 aggregate win, and hammered Kaiserslautern 9-2 to book their spot in the final.

Alaves went down by two goals early in the final against Liverpool, but in an incredible match drew level at 4-4 in the 88th minute, forcing extra time. Three minutes before penalties, Liverpool’s Gary McAllister struck a free kick that Delfi Geli managed to deflect into his own net for the golden goal. Alaves have since slipped into the Spanish Segunda Division B.

Porto, Deportivo La Coruna & Monaco,
2003-04 Champions League
Result: Porto – won final; Monaco – lost final; Deportivo – lost to Porto in semi-final

Coming on the heels of Chelsea’s €125 million (£111m) summer spending spree, and the formation of Real Madrid’s Galacticos, the results of the 2003-04 Champions League were incredible. Despite the concentrated assembly of star players in a few clubs, it was a year for Europe’s smaller teams.

Deportivo, who had only qualified for their first Champions League in 2000, finished second to Monaco in Group C, but managed to beat Group D winners Juventus 1-0 in both legs. In the quarter-finals, the Spaniards lost 4-1 to AC Milan in the first leg, but hammered them 4-0 in the return in one of the all-time great comebacks, and advanced to the semis. There they met eventual champions Porto, who after playing to a scoreless draw at the Estadio do Dragao, won the away leg 1-0 to advance to the final.

In the final, Porto met giant-slayers Monaco, who had only once before qualified for the semi-finals. After winning their group, the Ligue 1 side beat Lokomotiv Moscow, Real Madrid, and Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea. It was a tremendous run, but Didier Deschamps’ men were unable to overcome Jose Mourinho’s Porto.

Of the three unforeseen semi-finalists, Porto were perhaps the least surprising. They had once before won the European Cup, and were reigning Uefa Cup champions entering the 2003-04 season. Still, the cup winners lacked the big names - the Zinedine Zidanes, Ronaldos and Luis Figos - of other clubs in the tournament, and their triumph in the final was made possible thanks to goals from Dmitri Alenichev, Carlos Alberto and Deco.

Since the 2003-04 season, none of Deportivo, Monaco, and Porto have managed to repeat their performances and return to the Champions League semi-finals.

Schalke, 2010-11 Champions League
Result: to be determined…

After splashing cash in the summer transfer window, Schalke managed to lose their first four games of the 2010-11 Bundesliga season, and did not record their second win until November. Even after a recent resurgence, they lie just ninth in the German top flight. Their tournament form, however, has been magnificent, knocking out holders Bayern Munich to reach the DFB Pokal final, and are just three games away from earning their first-ever Champions League trophy.

Seeded as a Pot 3 team Schalke were pitted against Benfica, Hapoel Tel Aviv, and last year’s semi-finalists, Lyon. After losing their opener to the French, they won four of their next five matches - the other a draw away to Hapoel - and emerged from Group B as winners with 13 points and an impressive +7 goal difference.

Schalke met Valencia in the round of 16, and despite conceding early goals in both legs, managed to progress with a 4-2 aggregate win over the two legs. After drawing in Spain, they won the return leg 3-1 and booked their spot in the quarter-finals where they met defending champions Inter.

Twice they went behind in the first leg, but twice the Germans equalised before half-time. After the break, Raul and Edu netted on either side of Andrea Ranocchia’s own goal, and Schalke effectively put the tie out of reach within 90 minutes. Inter were better in Gelsenkirchen and looked likely to come away with a draw, but Benedikt Howedes scored a late goal to earn Schalke a second victory over the holders, and head through with a 7-3 aggregate win.

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