How hard is it to turn around a Champions League tie?

How hard is it to turn around a Champions League tie?

It has been a cracking week for Champions League comebacks, with Barcelona making history and Borussia Dortmund also overcoming a first-leg defeat, but how many more can we expect this season?

With further second legs to come next week , we have looked back over every two-legged knockout match since the tournament began as the European Cup in 1955 to work out how likely a club is to turn around a first leg defeat.

Spain pain

Let’s start with the overall picture: just over one in five knockout ties – 201 out of the 932 played in the history of the competition – have seen the team which lost the first leg turn the tie around and qualify for the next stage. It’s probably not surprising that this is easier to do when the deficit is smaller: 36.8% of clubs who lost the first leg by just one goal ended up progressing, compared to 16.0% of those who trailed by two goals and 7.1% of those who went into the second leg three goals behind.

Until Barcelona stunned PSG last week, no team had ever turned a tie around after losing the first leg by four or more goals and in doing so they provided more evidence that bouncebackability is in the Spanish DNA. In addition to the Catalan club’s historic triumph, three of the 10 clubs who have managed to claw their way back from a three-goal defeat were from Spain. No other country has more than one representative in this list and they boast the most recent: Deportivo’s comeback against Milan in the 2003/04 quarter-final when they lost the first leg 4-1 but stunned the Italians with a 4-0 second-leg victory.

English lack recovery power

Overall, Spanish clubs have turned around 42.9% of the ties in which they lost the first leg – the highest of any of the continent’s leading footballing nations. Interestingly the second-best record is that of French teams, which should make Manchester City nervous when they face Monaco. City’s opponents have relatively recent form too, having famously eliminated Real Madrid on away goals in 2003/04 – clearly a good year for comebacks – after losing the first leg 4-2 at the Bernabeu.

English clubs don’t fare anywhere near as well, with only 18 successful turnarounds from 59 attempts, with only German sides performing worse. This suggests that Leicester and Bayer Leverkusen may have their work cut out when they each try to overturn their first-leg reverses next week.

Atletico up for the fight

One of the reasons that Spanish clubs turn so many ties around compared to German ones is damage control. Clubs from Spain have the highest proportion of first-leg losses by a single goal – 62.9% – while over half of all first-leg defeats by German teams are by at least a two-goal margin. Leverkusen added to this sorry statistic with their 4-2 defeat to Atletico Madrid last month and this also includes a whopping 16 defeats by three or more goals.

Atletico are coincidentally Europe’s most effective club at turning around ties: they’re the only Champions League club with at least five first-leg defeats to have turned around more than half of them (four out of seven). Barcelona’s recent exploits mean they’re now ranked as second best, with two English clubs – Liverpool and Chelsea – slotting in next. The Blues were the last team to undo a first-leg PSG victory after rallying to defeat them on away goals in 2013/14, which you can relive using the video in our graphic. Worryingly for Pep Guardiola – and of some consolation to France – Monaco complete the top five with an identical record to Chelsea’s.

Gunners fail to fire

It will surprise nobody to learn that Arsenal are in the bottom five here: their capitulation to Bayern Munich last week was their 10th failure in 11 attempts to turn around a first-leg defeat. Their only success remains a second-leg destruction of Porto in 2009/10 – the last time they made it past the last 16 of the competition. If the Gunners are to reinvent themselves as a European force, then perhaps they need to add a dash of Spanish grit. With current Barcelona boss and record-breaking turnaround mastermind Luis Enrique available next season, there’s a tempting solution to the Gunners’ current crisis.