3 surprising Champions League debutants Leicester can emulate
The story of Leicester City’s fairytale season is still being written, sat as they are nine points away from a spellbinding Premier League title. But the Foxes commissioned another chapter in their legendary rise up world football’s ranks by qualifying for the Champions League with victory over Sunderland.
With a top-four finish now guaranteed, Leicester fans can allow themselves to dream of conquering the continent’s premier club competition too.
As a starting point, they may want to follow the examples of these three tournament debutants, who all outperformed expectations in their first appearances among the elite:
Panathinaikos – Semi-finalists, 1995/96
After hurdling Hadjuk Split in the qualifying round on away goals, the Greeks landed a group that quickly turned controversial.
Fellow Group A foes Dynamo Kyiv were thrown out of the competition after defeating Oi Prasinoi in the opening match, having been outed in a failed attempt to bribe the referee.
Despite losing to Kyiv’s replacement, Aalborg, in the substitute fixture, Juan Roman Rocha’s side went unbeaten in their other five, including keeping Portuguese powerhouses Porto goalless in both meetings.
In the knockout stages Panathinaikos’ star duo were key in defeating Legia Warsaw. Club record scorer Kristof Warzycha bagged a brace, while Argentine playmaker Juan Jose Borrelli added a third in a decisive 3-0 second leg.
When Warzycha scored the only goal against defending champions Ajax in the semi-final first leg, a real shock was on the cards. However, a Jari Litmanen double ensured the Dutch made consecutive final appearances, although they went on to lose to Juventus on penalties.
FC Nantes – Semi-finalists, 1995/96
The 1995/96 Champions League campaign proved a potent breeding ground for impressive first timers. Particularly in Group A, which the French club also progressed from.
Bolstered by academy graduates Claude Makelele, Japhet N’Doram and Nicolas Ouedec, the Canaries made light work of Spartak Moscow at home in the first leg of their quarter final, before going through 4-2 on aggregate.
A famous 3-2 win against eventual-winners Juve followed at home in the second leg of the semi final, but it was too little too late as the Frenchmen had already lost the preceding match 2-0.
Leeds United – Semi-finalists, 2000/01
The Yorkshire club retain ownership of the best finish by an English Champions League debutant.
Whacked 4-0 by Barcelona at the Nou Camp in their first ever group-stage game, the Whites recovered by beating AC Milan 1-0 on a famous night at Elland Road. Spurred by that momentum, Leeds didn’t lose another Group H outing and qualified for second group phase, ironically, at Barca’s expense.
That mini-league played out in almost identical fashion. Leeds once again lost the opener to a giant of the game, Real Madrid this time, but rallied for a second time to progress. Alan Smith was the hero of the section, scoring four of his seven tournament goals in Group H.
Deportivo suffered a 3-2 aggregate defeat in the quarter finals, setting up a last-four clash with Valencia in the semi. However, despite scoring 27 goals in the 16 games to that point, Smith and co couldn’t muster any against their Spanish opposition and crashed out.
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