BY ALL BLUE DAZE

The Champions League can throw up some strange results and incredible performances, but for delivering on the unexpected, the tournament across the 2011-12 season would surely take some beating. Big clubs, flickered then failed. Others got off the floor and prospered. When the chips were down though, hardly anything seemed to go with expectations.

In the Round of Sixteen, Arsenal went into the home leg of their tie with AC Milan four goals in arrears after a thoroughly demoralising hiding in the San Siro. Back at the Emirates though, with two minutes remaining of the first-half, Robin van Persie fired in a spot-kick to bring that deficit down to a single goal with all the second period to play. Then, again perhaps contrary to expectations, Arsenal couldn’t find the one extra strike to draw things level, and went out.

In the second-leg of the semi-final, despite having taken a 1-0 lead to the Camp Nou, Chelsea had conceded twice and, having had Terry sent off, were surely dead and buried before a Ramires strike in added time at the end of the first period, and a Torres breakaway goal as time ticked away produced what Gary Neville called an “unbelievable” denouement to the tie. In the other semi-final, facing a penalty shoot-out in front of their own fans against the pride of Bavaria, Los Blancos lost their way from 12 yards out, failing to convert three of four spot kicks and ushering the German team into the final in their own back yard.

And then there was the final, with Bayern Munich bloodying their knuckles as they hammered relentlessly on the door of Chelsea’s thin blue line before Drogba slotted home a penalty for the most outlandish of European triumphs. With all that drama reverberating around the competition though, perhaps the biggest upset got lost somewhere in the glory and despair.

Going into the last games of Group D, on 7th December 2011, the die seemed set for who would qualify. Having won all five of their group games, Real Madrid were home and hosed with fifteen points, and guaranteed top spot. With two wins and two draws, Ajax were second on eight points, and Olympique Lyonnais lay in third place with five points. The final fixtures would see Madrid travel to Amsterdam, and Lyon visit Dinamo Zagreb in Croatia. Whilst the games promised a gain for Lyon, with Madrid strongly fancied to complete the clean sweep of victories in the group, and a win for French club against the so far pointless Dinamo quite a likely outcome, the Dutch club still seemed likely to prosper. With both games between the clubs of Remi Garde and Frank de Boer having resulted in goalless draws, should the results fall in the expected way, the French club would need an improbable eight goal swing in their favour to turn things around. Going into the games, Ajax’s goal difference stood at +3, whilst Lyon’s was -4, with Ajax also having scored more goals to boot.

Lyon fans could take some heart in the likely defeat for Ajax, but even a comfortable Madrid victory would leave the French team something to do if they were to make up sufficient ground to make any meaningful difference. Add to that, the discouraging statistic that across the first five games of the group, Lyon had only managed to find the back of the net a total of twice, and it seemed increasingly likely that Ajax would prosper and qualify. This was the tournament of the unexpected though.

True to form, things hadn’t gone well for the Dutch during the first 45 minutes in Amsterdam as de Boer retreated to the dressing-room with Madrid two goals clear thanks to strikes from Callejón and Higuain. The manger probably knew that the prospects of qualification for his club were going to be settled in Zagreb, rather than in his forlorn quest to down the aristocrats from Spain. Checking how things were going in the other game, de Boer was pleased to hear that despite having a man sent off after the half-hour mark, when Leko was shown a second yellow for grabbing hold of the shirt of Bafetimbi Gomis, the Croatian team were a goal to the good. The strike came from teenager Mateo Kovačić, after Hugo Lloris had twice foiled attempts from Fatos Bećiraj. The youngster celebrated wildly, and de Boer must have felt like joining him when he heard the news.

With the game in Croatia running a little behind the one in Amsterdam, de Boer may not have been aware that, just on the stroke of half-time, a cross from Aly Cissokho deflected off Šime Vrsaljko, ballooned into the air, evading Ivan Kelava, allowing Gomis to slide in as the ball crossed the line. Even the celebrations of the Lyon players though, suggested they hardly saw it as the lighting of the blue touch-paper for the fireworks that were to come after the break.

Lyon had started the game in steady but less than spectacular fashion, with their best attempt of the first 40 minutes or so being a clip from Gourcuff that defeated Kelava in the home goal that shaved the outside of the upright as it drifted wide. Whilst there was still plenty of time for the visitors to recover, despite the somewhat fortunate equaliser, the home goal looked like it may have further deflated any declining aspirations Garde’s team may have had. Dinamo’s home form in the group had hardly been outstanding, but they had even held the runaway group leaders to just a single goal defeat. This was the scenario that led to the most extraordinary of second periods.

In the history of football, there have probably been some stirring team-talks by managers; reorganisations of tactics that have turned games; amazing pieces of insight that have lifted dispirited and seemingly defeated players. Whatever Remi Garde said in the dressing-room at the Stadion Maksimir on that December evening, to a group of players that to all intents seemed to be resigned to their fates, if it was that that made the difference though, must surely equate to the most celebrated of master-classes.

Within seconds of the restart, a Lyon corner from the right was flicked on by Briand, and closing in at the far post, Maxime Gonalons somehow bundled the ball past Kelava and into the net for the most inelegant of goals. If the equaliser was fortunate, this goal was right up there with it. Had fortune taken a hand in Lyon’s seemingly impossible task? Surely not, but seconds later, they scored again. A poor restart saw Briand steal possession and square to Gomis who fired powerfully home. At 1-3 the celebrations still weren’t overzealous, but was there just a hint of daylight?

Just four more minutes had passed as Lyon swept forward again. There was now a disinterested look about the home defence and as Cissokho’s cross found Gomis for a tap in on the six-yard line, none of the seven home defenders in the penalty area were in a position to prevent the goal. The striker turned and trotted back to the centre-circle having completed the quickest hat-trick in the history of the Champions League, removing the feat of Blackburn’s Mike Newell from the record books. It had taken just seven minutes of actual playing time.

With 38 minutes still to play, Garde threw on another attacker. Lisandro Lopez had joined the French club from Porto two years earlier, and in his four years with the club would score 59 league goals and at a strike rate of better than a goal every two games. His goal in this game though would prove pivotal. A dozen minutes had gone since Dinamo had conceded the fourth goal and it was beginning to look like they may have weathered the storm. A neat through ball beat the home offside trap, and the Argentine striker coolly slotted home.

It was after this goal that an oft-quoted moment occurred. As Gomis went to fish the ball out of the neat to hurry the restart, he was beaten to it by home defender Domagoj Vida. As the Croatian lifted his head, he was looking straight at Gomis. From behind him, clearly enthused by the goal and perhaps his manager’s blandishments, Lopez snatches the ball to run back. At the same time, Vida clearly winks at the Lyon hat-trick hero. The action is clear on video. The intent, however, remains less so. Was it merely a simple acknowledgement by the defender that he wasn’t trying to waste time or some other similarly innocent notion? I’ve read other interpretations that suggest less honourable intentions.

Whatever the truth of that, any serious resistance was now all but broken down. With 20 minutes left, against token defence, another Cissokho cross found its way to an unmarked Gomis in the area. Standing alone by the penalty spot, he cleverly opened his body to steer the ball home, becoming only the fourth man in the history of the competition to net four times in a single game. If the defence had by now thrown in the towel, between the sticks, it was clear that Kelava was furious with the lack of cover being provided by his team-mates. Celebrations on the Lyon bench suggested that they now knew they were within reach of an improbable result. Garde, however, stepped forward and calmly prompted his team, reorganising and knowing that another goal would be needed.

Five minutes later it came. With the Dinamo backline looking bereft of organisation, a neat dummy saw Lopez through on goal and the seventh goal of the game flew home for the visitors. In just over thirty minutes, Lyon had bagged half-a-dozen second-half goals in Croatia compared to their grand total of two across five games. It left Dinamo with the unenviable record of having conceded 22 goals in six games, albeit a total skewed by Lyon’s second-half barrage.

Back in Amsterdam, having had two goals disallowed, Ajax were beaten 0-3 and Frank de Boer was left to contemplate how the unthinkable had eliminated his team. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch manager smelt a rat and urged UEFA to investigate the ‘unusual’ result. Whilst L’Equipe proclaimed the result as “miraculous,” video of Vida’s wink only fuelled suspicions of foul play. De Boer was understandably enraged. “If there was something unusual, UEFA should investigate what happened in Zagreb,” he declared. Justifying his position, he explained that “(his) assistants have told (him) that the goals came quick and easy, because you can’t normally score these goals in half an hour. At half-time I saw Zagreb were ahead 1-0, then in the dressing room (after the match) I heard it was 7-1. This is what you imagine in your worst dreams.” Perhaps ‘nightmare’ may have been more apposite.

Despite investigations into betting on the game, the authorities found no evidence of unusual patterns and English referee Mark Clattenburg’s report contained no mention of anything that he may have considered as suspicious. Given more recent events, it may not add much to dispelling any air of suspicion to mention that Michel Platini, then President of UEFA, declared that he had “no doubts” about the integrity of the game. Perhaps more significant is the fact that following the game, Dinamo dismissed manager, Krunoslav Jurčić, who left the club declaring that speculation about the result was “shameful, malicious and tendentious.”

Whenever a game turns up an unexpected result, there will always be a ‘raising of eyebrows’. When something extraordinary happens, some will have a tendency to look for conspiracies. Sometimes though, the very nature of football lends itself to the extraordinary. It makes fools of us all, building and destroying dreams in equal measure – that’s just how it is and in the Champions League of 2011-12, that’s just how it was – or was it?

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