Part 2: The quick rise from Champions League debutants to aristocrats
2000/01: Deportivo’s Champions League debut
Six years after their agonising title near-miss, Deportivo La Coruña could finally celebrate getting over the line in 2000 to land their first-ever La Liga crown. In two seasons at the club, manager Javier Irureta had taken them from relegation candidates to champions of Spain, which brought with it a debut outing in the UEFA Champions League.
Qualification for that tournament had eluded them in 1994 as it then included only national champions and the reigning holders of the trophy, so Deportivo had double cause for celebration in the first year of the 21st century. The summer of 2000 was a busy one at the Riazor, with comings and going aplenty.
Flávio Conceição and Pauleta were sold for handsome fees, with the top-up to the bank balance funding the arrivals of several players who would become stalwarts for the club over the coming decade – the trio of José Molina, Joan Capdevila and Juan Carlos Valerón all arrived from Atletico Madrid, while there were three new midfielders in Aldo Duscher, Emerson and César Sampaio. In attack, the potent threat of Roy Makaay was now augmented by the arrivals of Walter Pandiani and Diego Tristán. Heading into the 2000/01 season, Deportivo was well and truly Irureta’s team.
The surprise factor of the previous campaign was gone, though, so could they keep up their status as Spanish kingpins or would their title triumph prove to be a flash in the plan? The early signs were encouraging as they lost only once up to November, although it was against a title rival in Real Madrid. A month later, though, Deportivo reclaimed their place at the summit, only for a poor run of form towards the end of 2000 to dent their hopes of retaining their domestic crown, while a Copa Del Rey exit to second-tier Tenerife was also a setback.
They also had to contend with Champions League football, an experience which was novel to the club. They took to it well, though, progressing from a first round group which also contained Hamburg, Panathinaikos and a strangely off-colour Juventus side which finished bottom of that quartet.
Late goals proved to be pivotal in them topping Group E, with Noureddine Naybet rescuing a draw away to Panathinaikos with an 84th-minute equaliser, Lionel Scaloni netting a 94th-minute winner against Hamburg in the Riazor’s first Champions League match and Pandiani’s 82nd-minute goal at home to the Greek side the only one of a tight encounter.
Back then, the format had two group stages, so Deportivo were guaranteed a further six matches in the competition after getting through the first phase. They were in a fiendish group with AC Milan, Paris Saint-Germain and UEFA Cup holders Galatasaray but got off to an excellent start, winning 3-1 in the French capital. Two defeats then left them with an uphill battle to get out of the group before a home win over the Turkish side steadied the ship.
The Riazor clash with PSG would go down as one of the most incredible nights in Deportivo’s history. Early in the second half, it was on course to be a humiliating one as the Parisians surged into a 3-0 lead. Cue the Pandiani and Tristán rescue act, with the former coming off the bench to score a hat-trick as, remarkably, the home side completed the comeback and emerged 4-3 winners. As if that wasn’t enough, they then went to the San Siro and won 1-0 courtesy of a Djalminha penalty to take their place in the quarter-finals. Just how far would their maiden Champions League adventure take them?
The answer to that quickly came. Deportivo may well have fancied their chances against Leeds, who were also in the tournament for the first time, but a 3-0 shellacking at Elland Road effectively killed off the tie. After the recovery against PSG, it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that they could haul it back and they gave it a good go but came up narrowly short, a 2-0 win at the Riazor not enough to keep them in the competition. Nonetheless, Deportivo’s name was now known all across the continent.
Domestically they managed to stay in the hunt for a second successive title, with a memorable 3-2 win away to Barcelona perhaps the highlight of their La Liga campaign. They ought to have turned over Real Madrid at home, too, only to waste a succession of chances and have a questionable penalty given against them in a 2-2 draw. Ultimately they couldn’t quite defend their crown, with the men from the Bernabéu reclaiming domestic superiority, but there was no shame in finishing runners-up while also embarking on an impressive run in Europe.
2001/02: Another strong showing in Europe
In contrast to the major squad overhaul in 2000, the only significant arrival the following summer was midfielder Sergio. The first few months of the season saw Deportivo at their best again, top of La Liga for the bulk of October and November while also recording home and away victories over a top-quality Manchester United team in the Champions League to breeze into the second group phase.
However, the turn of the year saw Irureta’s side hit a slump domestically, dropping from first at the start of December to seventh in February. Other tournaments would soon prove their salvation, though, as wins over Juventus and Arsenal saw them into a second successive Champions League quarter-final.
On 6 March 2002, Deportivo played Real Madrid in the Copa Del Rey final…at the Bernabéu…on the capital club’s precise 100-year anniversary. They were seen as little more than guests at Real Madrid’s centenary celebrations but came with the intention of being party poopers and held up their end of the bargain, with first half goals from Sergio and Tristán. The hosts pulled a goal back but the visitors had done enough to pull off a shock win and add the cup to their league title of two years’ previously.
Once again, their Champions League campaign ended at the quarter-final stage at the hands of English opposition, with Manchester United avenging their group stage defeats with a pair of wins over Deportivo and showing that Irureta’s side, while making huge progress, still had more to do to catch up with the cream of the European crop.
Defeat to league leaders Valencia in the title run-in effectively ended their hopes of regaining the crown and Rafael Benítez’s side went on to become champions, although the Galicians still managed to repeat their second-placed finish from the previous year and, notably, avoid the need for a play-off to get back into the Champions League for the following campaign.
2002/03: Makaay inspires yet another solid Champions League campaign
The summer of 2002 saw the likes of Valerón and Tristán called up to the Spain squad for the World Cup, with Albert Luque and Jorge Andrade among the new arrivals while 90s star Turu Flores departed and Pandiani was loaned out to Real Mallorca. However, unlike in the previous two seasons, Deportivo started slowly in La Liga, occupying a mid-table spot by Halloween. They also made heavy weather of getting out of their Champions League group, ultimately grateful for a pair of wins over a declining Bayern Munich team, with Makaay scoring a famous hat-trick in the 3-2 triumph at the Olympiastadion and also netting the only goal at the Riazor.
Their fortunes in La Liga improved during the winter months, climbing to third in January, but a difficult second group phase in the Champions League left them needing a result against Juventus in their final match to reach a third consecutive quarter-final. They seemed on course to go through when they held a 2-1 lead but let that slip and conceded a stoppage time winner to instead see the Italians advance and make it all the way to the final. There was no disgrace in reaching the last 16 of the Champions League for three years in a row, yet failing to make the quarter-finals felt like mission failed for a Deportivo side who were now well-established in the competition.
Their form in La Liga soared, however, and they led the table in mid-May, with a second title in four years a distinct possibility. Unfortunately, they suffered a succession of heavy defeats during the run-in, including a 3-0 thrashing by local rivals Celta Vigo, and had to be content with third place, their lowest league finish since 1999. Again it was a more than respectable finish for Deportivo, yet one which felt like a bitter disappointment given that they were no longer fresh upstarts operating above their expected level.
They also became victims of their success in a way, with Makaay’s 29 La Liga goals making him the league’s top scorer and earning him a lucrative move to a Bayern Munich side that he had destroyed a few months earlier. Deportivo’s key players were now hot property, while three years had elapsed without them adding to that sole league title. There was a sense that they were struggling to keep the momentum going, although they had established themselves as a respected force in the Champions League – something which would have seemed a pipe dream when Irureta took charge five years previously.
Don’t forget to check out the third and final part of the series next week!