Part of the excitement of knockout competitions comes from the joy of a 'giant-killing'. In competitions played on the basis of elimination such as the FA Cup, Carabao Cup and Champions League, instances of lower-ranked teams beating higher-placed opposition are highly anticipated by fans and prove to be the most exhilarating form of entertainment.
Upsets of underdog teams – the 'minnows' being the giant-killers – overcoming the on-paper 'favourites' are what makes cup competitions and knockout tournaments so special.
What is a giant-killing in football?
In football, there is little room for predictability, but whereas points-based competitions such as the Premier League rely on teams maintaining consistent form for the duration of the campaign, the stakes are much higher in a knockout competition as everything is on the line during the course of a single match.
And so, a giant-killing is when minnow sides slay the 'giant' of a team objectively viewed as the odds-on favorite to win the tie, or the whole tournament. In a David and Goliath scenario, the underdogs are considered to be the David while the giants are the Goliath.
It is considered particularly commendable, for instance, if a side from a lower league defeats a Premier League team, such as when Championship side Derby County beat Manchester United in the third round of the Carabao Cup in 2018.
Giant-killing on football examples
United are the most decorated and successful English side of the Premier League era, and the fact that they were able to be beaten by a team from a lower division was considered to be a humiliation for the Red Devils – as well as an incredible, outstanding feat for Derby.
Championship side Wigan are notable giant-killers, having gotten the best out of Premier League giants Manchester City on more than one occasion in the FA Cup.
The Latics were overwhelming underdogs coming into the 2013 FA Cup final against the Sky Blues, having been relegated from the Premier League while City finished second. Naturally, Roberto Mancini's side were considered favorites for the final at Wembley, but were undone by a shock goal scored by Ben Watson in stoppage time to win Wigan the FA Cup in the same season they were demoted to the Championship.
Wigan's FA Cup triumph meant that they became the first team in history to win the Cup and succumb to relegation in the same campaign.
City fell to Wigan once again in the FA Cup fifth round in February 2018 when the Sky Blues, managed by Pep Guardiola, were chasing a domestic treble after having won the Carabao Cup. But it was yet another shock 1-0 win for the Latics when Will Grigg netted in the 79th minute to 'giant-kill' the Manchester side.
The Champions League has seen its fair share of giant-killings as well, but given the sheer breadth and stature of the competition playing host to Europe's most elite sides, the dark horses and underdogs don't usually tend to go all the way.
As the European competition is still played on a knockout basis, giant-killings do still happen, but not as often as they do in domestic cup competitions. It is harder for the minnow teams to progress to the knockout phases of the competition, and when they do, they are usually eventually overcome with a tournament favorite. Since 2013, five of the Champions League winners have been La Liga forces Real Madrid and Barcelona, with Bundesliga giants Bayern the last non-Spanish winner.
Chelsea were considered underdogs when they contested the 2012 final against Bayern Munich, ultimately winning the tournament, but the Blues are not seen as a minnow in England – they are considered a dominant force.
In the 2018-19 Champions League season, however, Dutch side Ajax have emerged as a true giant-killer in Europe. The plucky Eredivisie side finished second in their group behind Bayern Munich and managed to knock out both Real Madrid in Juventus – both pegged as heavy favorites to win the competition in its entirety – in successive rounds.
Ajax were never considered to go far in the European competition that involved Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Manchester City, but they had already defeated two of those giants by the semi-final stage.
In bona fide giant-killing fashion, Ajax overcame massive odds to beat Real Madrid 4-1 at the Bernabeu, progressing 5-3 on aggregate, and then defeated Juventus 2-1 in Turin to win the tie 3-2 over two legs. What's more incredible is that the Spanish side were on a quest to win their fourth successive Champions League in a row and their fourth in six years, while Juventus had been named as frontrunners following their purchase of Cristiano Ronaldo in their chase for European glory.
Ajax then went on to beat Tottenham 1-0 away at the Londoners' brand-new home stadium in the first leg of the semi-final to etch themselves into the history of giant-killing forever.