European Football History: Five of The Greatest Escapes

European Football History

Following on from our look back at the greatest escapes in English football’s history, we turn our attention to those who have achieved similar feats across the rest of Europe. For those whose team have endured these escapes, they live long in the mind as good and bad memories. Others have watched in fascination as the story has unfolded. Here is a look back at just five of the greatest escapes in European football history. 

Five Great Escapes in European Football History

Eintracht Frankfurt – Bundesliga, 1998/99

One year from marking the club’s centenary, Eintracht Frankfurt were back in the Bundesliga following promotion. In their 99 year history, Frankfurt were about to embark on their 97th Bundesliga season. With the 100-year mark coming up, Frankfurt wanted the occasion to celebrated with them in Germany’s top flight. In the end, they did, but only just. 

With five games of the season left, Frankfurt needed a miracle to avoid relegation for just the third time in their history. Ten points were collected in the first four games but they still needed to win their final game of the season and outscore their relegation rivals. Goals were needed but their final game was against reigning Bundesliga champions and current Champions League hopefuls Kaiserslautern.

Against all the odds, Frankfurt gave themselves a fighting chance and closing in on full-time they led 4-1. However, with other scorelines filtering through, this was still not enough, another goal was still needed. With time rapidly running out, former Middlesborough and Sheffield United striker Jan Aage Fjortoft scored with just seconds to go to clinch an unlikely victory and great escape. 

In recent years, goal hero Fjortoft was asked about his goal by and if he knew what it meant. He said: “I knew we still needed a goal, I just didn’t know why exactly! We had read about all the potential scenarios in the media, but I wasn’t aware that my goal was sending Nürnberg down. Nobody did! It all came down to goal difference. The worst thing was that after my goal, we still had a couple of minutes left to play and couldn’t afford to concede another. It was horrible.”

Crotone – Serie A, 2016/17

Formed in 1910, it took Crotone 106 years to reach Italy’s top flight. Their first season in Serie A will go down as one of football’s greatest escapes. Having won promotion the previous season, finishing in second place in Serie B, few gave the club from southern Italy much hope. For much of the season, those doubters were proved correct.

Crotone spent just two weeks outside of the relegation zone. The first week and the all-important final week. By the end of March, following 29 matches, the relegation favourites had won just three games, losing 21. Many had consigned them to Serie B after just one season in Serie A. However, as football does on many occasions, the inconceivable was about to happen. 

The next eight games brought five victories and just one defeat. Points were taken from both Milan clubs, Sampdoria and Torino amongst others. Their one defeat came away at Juventus. Their form meant a win on the final day at home against Lazio would preserve their top-flight status. Remarkably they won 3-1 to lift them out of the relegation zone for the first time since the opening week of the season. 

Club Desportivo de Tondela – Primeira Liga, 2015/16

CD Tondela’s rise in Portuguese football is a surprising success story. Based in central Portugal with a population of less than 30,000 and a football ground with a capacity of just 5,000, they have risen through Portugal’s football pyramid this century. A club that mainly played in the regional leagues until the early years of the 2000s, Tondela have risen rapidly. The small club with a big heart and fighting spirit are now established in the Primeira Liga. However, their first season with Portugal’s big boys almost ended in instant relegation.

By December, Tondela looked certain to return immediately to Portugal’s second tier. Two managers had brought just five points and the club were rooted to the bottom of the table. Former Portugal international midfielder Petit was brought in with the hope that a miracle could be performed and one of the great escapes in European football history could be written.

However, by March, they were still 11 points adrift of safety despite performances and results improving. Petit had finally managed to get his team winning and come the last day of the season, they were still in with a chance of surviving. A win was required whilst hoping their nearest relegation rivals União da Madeira would be defeated.

Tondela won 2-0 with Maderia suffering a 2-1 defeat. The miracle was complete. To this day, Tondela are still punching above their weight but still surviving amongst the top teams in Portugal.

Cagliari – Serie A, 1990/91

The mid-1980s were dark times for Italian side Cagliari. Relegated to Serie C1 along with financial difficulties that threatened the existence of the club, the former Serie A champions were at their lowest. Enter a young coach by the name of Claudio Ranieri. The future Premier League winner led the club to two successive promotions and back into Italy’s top-flight.

Their return to Serie A was difficult. Stuck firmly in the relegation zone, by the 25th game of the season only three victories had been obtained. An instant return to Serie B looked more and more likely as the season progressed. However, somehow, Ranieri and his team managed to turn their fortunes around.

Three wins, six draws and just one defeat in their last ten games took them out of the relegation zone. A draw against eventual champions Sampdoria showed how far they had come in such a short space of time. Other draws against Juventus and Lazio also helped build momentum. They eventually finished 14th and four points clear of relegation.

Cagliari’s meteoric rise under Ranieri and their great escape on their return to the big time paved the way for several successful seasons, including qualifying for Europe and reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup.

Werder Bremen  – Bundesliga, 2019/20

Since the Bundesliga was formed in 1963, Werder Bremen have spent just one season outside of it. The four-time champions of Germany (their latest being in 2004) however, almost made it a second relegation in their Bundesliga history but for one of the greatest escapes not only in German football history but European football history.

Several seasons of mid-table mediocracy was followed by an eighth-placed finish and signs of a return to challenging at the top of the table. Fans’ hopes soon turned to despair as they watched their team suffer defeat after defeat. From November 10 until May 18 when the pandemic halted the game around the world, Bremen played 15 matches. They lost 13. Now just two points from the bottom of the table and eight from safety, the Green and Whites needed a miracle.

Following the return of football, Bremen somehow managed to collect enough points to take their fate to the final game of the season. A win was required not for safety but to be able to play in the relegation playoff games. They also had to hope that Fortuna Dusseldorf lost. They did and Bremen cruised to just their second home win of the season beating FC Köln 6-1.

The dreaded playoffs now awaited them. They would face Heidenheim who finished third in the league below over two games for the chance to play in the Bundesliga the following season.

A 0-0 draw at home in the first leg was not the result the Green and Whites had hoped for and their miracle escape was beginning to fade. An early goal in the second leg gave Bremen hope but an 85th-minute equaliser ensured a nervy ending. However, fans needn’t have worried as a goal in the 92 minute gave the away side the lead.

Another equaliser came but the 2-2 scoreline meant Werder Bremen won on away goals. Their second worst Bundesliga season was over but this time they had surprised everyone with their great escape. One which will go down as one of the greatest in European football history.

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