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10 of the greatest sporting comebacks of all time


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There aren't many things a neutral observer loves in sport more than a great comeback, and in the past few weeks we’ve been graced with two exceptional examples.

Firstly, in NFL, we have the Patriots coming from 3-21 down to achieve a 34-28 victory in the Superbowl. Then we had Barcelona in the Champions League, down 0-4 in the first leg, beating PSG 6-1 in the return fixture with a 95th-minute Sergi Roberto goal. 

In tribute The National Student is taking a look at some of the greatest comebacks that the sporting world has ever seen...

Lasse Viren, Munich 1972

The 23-year-old Finn was fairly unknown at the start of the 1972 games, with the 10,000m heats being his Olympic debut. In the final, at the 5,000m mark he collided with Tunisia’s Mohamed Gammoudi, who pulled out soon after. However, Viren calmly stood up, collected himself, and carried on running. He went on to overtake David Bedford of Britain, who had been leading most of the way. He finished with a time of 27:38.4, which was a new world record at the time. Ten days later, he went on to win the 5,000m, setting an Olympic record of 13:26.4

He went on to win the double again at the following Olympics, Montréal 1976. 

Red Rum, Aintree 1973

Before Grand National in 1973, Red Rum was split favourites with Crisp, both at 9/1 to win. However by the time they reached the final fence, Red Rum’s main opponent, Crisp, had built a substantial lead by fifteen lengths. It looked as though the race was done and dusted. However Red Rum's jockey, Brian Fletcher, pushed the steeplechaser hard. Somehow they managed to catch Crisp and his jockey Richard Pitman, eventually winning the race by three-quarters of a length.

England v Australia, Headingly 1981

With a 2-0 Ashes Series lead looking likely for Australia, and England at odds of 500-1 to win the test, it looked like the fat lady had sung her song. In came Ian Botham to defiantly score 149 runs. This caused Australia to bat again, in an innings during which Bob Willis tore apart the Australian order, taking 8 wickets for 43 runs. 

England went on to win the series 3-1, with two draws, and thus retained the coveted Ashes. The series has henceforth been knows as ‘Botham’s Ashes’, in homage to his incredible display. 

Ian Botham acknowledges the crowd as he reaches his century.

Chris Eubank v Michael Watson, London 1991

In June '91 Watson had unjustly lost to Eubank on a points decision and he was out for revenge. The fight had gone to the eleventh round with each fighter not giving an inch. Watson was leading on points and inflicting damage. Barraging Eubank deep into the round with hit after hit, all the down on his luck Eubank could do was soak it up and attempt to counter-punch when possible.

Watson caught him, and Eubank went down for a few seconds. It seemed like the fight was all but over. Eubank stood up and advanced looking entirely exhauseted. He threw a vicious uppercut that snuck between Watson’s guard. That was that. Watson immediately fell to the canvas and his head slapped against the ropes. Watson’s trainers took the fighter to his corner, but it was done. At the start of the twelfth round, Watson led on all three scorecards by six, three and one rounds respectively. All he had to do was survive three minutes.

29 seconds into the round, and referee Roy Francis called it, saying to Watson’s trainer Jimmy Tibbs it was over. It was a punch that literally ended Watson’s career, the injuries sustained causing him to retire. 

Amazing as the comeback was its consequences were tragic and Michael Watson, though he holds no grudge against Chris Eubank, is disabled as a result of the fight and a lack of medical care in the immediate aftermath. 

Manchester United v Bayern Munich, Barcelona 1999

A game my dad was fortunate enough to be present at, and he’s said to me that few hours have stayed with him as the ones in and around this game did. Both teams were playing for their respective trebles, and had only faced each other twice before in competitive matches, both ending as draws. United had two key players, Paul Scholes and Roy Keane suspended, whilst Bayern first-choice left-back Lizarazu was injured. 

Thanks to an early Mario Basler freekick, Bayern led 1-0. Despite dominance in possession, United failed to find a way back into the game. The second half was more even, but neither side found the net for the majority of the 45.

In the 81st minute, Sir Alex sent on the “baby-faced assassin”, Ole Gunnar Sjolskjær. Then came injury time. United won a corner, Schmeichel ventured forward. The ball was sent in, and failed to be properly cleared by Bayern’s Thorsten Fink. Giggs’s poor shot fell to Teddy Sheringham, who swiped at it with his right and into the net. Level.

30 seconds after the kickoff, United had won another corner, but Schmeichel stayed back this time as Sir Alex instructed. The ball from Beckham was flicked on by Sheringham and poked home by Sjolskjær, who celebrating as Basler had earlier, with a knee slide. United won, and in doing so, became the only English team to complete the treble. 

Manchester United celebrate their injury-time victory.

France v New Zealand, Twickenham 1999

New Zealand were favourites by some way in this fixture and it looked to be going that way when the Kiwis went out to a 24-10 lead, courtesy of four Mehrtens penalties, two of his conversions and two tries by powerhouse Jonah Lomu.

Up stepped France’s fly half, Christophe Lamaison. Slotting two drop-goals and two penalties in the space of eight minutes, he clawed the French back to 24-22. Tries by Dominici, Dourthe and Bernat-Salles followed, all converted by Lamaison. Despite a late consolation try by Wilson for the Kiwis, it was too late. 

France went on to lose the final 35-12 to Australia, but nevertheless completed a breath-taking comeback, with Lamaison boasting an impressive 28 points. 

Liverpool v AC Milan, Instanbul 2005

Up against one of the best teams to grace the tournament, littered with names such as Maldini, Pirlo, Kaka and Shevchenko, it would never be easy for Liverpool. Especially when they found themselves 3-0 down at halftime...

Maldini in the first minute, Crespo at minutes 39 and 44 It was a grim sight for Liverpool fans. Things seemed done, but Steven Gerrard had other ideas.

The captain asked the staff to leave the changing room, so that he could be alone with his team. Djibril Cissé described it as the best captain’s speech he’d ever heard. He told his players that if they scored in the first 15 minutes, they would win. And that’s exactly what they did.

Gerrard scored in the 53rd minute, Vladimir Šmicer at 56 and Xabi Alonso at 60. Liverpool went on to win 3-2 on penalties, thus completing one of the best comebacks in the tournament’s history. 

Europe v United States, Medinah 2012

Going into the last day of the 2012 Ryder Cup, the European team led by José María Olazábal found themselves 10-6 down to Ben Crenshaw’s US team. Following brilliant performances by all, the Europeans won 12 of the singles games and drew another. Martin Kaymer then beat Steve Stricker, and took the score to 13-14 to the Europeans. The cup stayed with Europe after a tense finale. 

New England Patriots v Atlanta Falcons, Houston 2017

The Patriots were favourites to win, by three. Tom Brady was on the hunt for his fifth Super Bowl title. However, by the end of the second quarter, the Falcons had stretched out to a comfortable 21-3 lead and it looked bleak for the Patriots. After the third quarter, it was still looking bad for the Patriots as Atlanta led 28-9. Up stepped Brady, widely considered to be one of the biggest steals in NFL draft history, having been drafted as the Patriots’ sixth draft in 2000. Leading the Patriots to score 19 unanswered points, the game was level at 28 each. James White ran in to win the game in overtime for New England, the first Super Bowl to be decided at this stage of a game. 

It sealed one of the greatest comebacks, as well as Brady’s status as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, quarterback of all time. 

Tom Brady celebrates winning his fifth Super Bowl.

Barcelona v Paris Saint-Germain, Barcelona 2017

Barcelona had lost the first leg by a substantial 4-0, and few counted their chances of making it through. If PSG managed to grab an away goal, then surely that was it? However, the Catalans had a different plan in mind. 

Luis Suaréz set the tone very early on, scoring in the third minute. Despite solid defensive efforts by PSG, a 40th-minute Kurzawa own goal gave Barcelona the inspiration they needed. Then Messi tucked home a Neymar-won penalty, and it was 3-0.

Barcelona one goal away from levelling the tie. Providing a lift, Edison Cavani struck a volley, and as it hit the net gave PSG hope. Barcelona needed three more at least, or faced going out on away goals. Neymar stepped up, firstly curling a freekick past Trapp in the 19th-minute, before hitting home a penalty conceded by Marquinhos, won by Suaréz. This made it 5-5 on aggregate, but PSG with that vital away goal. A fluffed freekick, but Neymar had another chance. He floated it in, and Sergi Roberto stuck out a foot, prodding the ball home. The Nou Camp erupted as Barcelona went through 6-5 on aggregate. 

Ivan Rakitic later said that Barcelona had taken inspiration from the feats of the New England Patriots just a month prior. 

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