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12 teams who salvaged their season by winning the Europa League

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“Thursday nights, Channel 5” was once the familiar refrain among supporters out to antagonise fans of opposing teams playing in Europe’s other cup competition – but times have changed. 

The Europa League is now broadcast on BT Sport rather than Channel 5, for one thing, while victory also brings with it an automatic place in next season’s Champions League. 

Yet even before that, lifting that famous trophy has always counted for something among fans. In fact, in a few instances, it was the difference between a disastrous season and a successful one – as these 12 examples demonstrate. 

Napoli 1988/89  

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Two years on from a first ever Scudetto, Diego Maradona captained Napoli to their first European trophy with victory over Stuttgart 5-4 on aggregate in a thrilling two-legged final. 

In Serie A, Napoli were no match for an Inter Milan side fired on by the ruthless German efficiency of new signings Andreas Brehme and Lothar Matthäus. They were also second best in the Coppa Italia, losing to Sampdoria in the final. 

It was a different story in Europe though with Juventus and Bayern Munich beaten en route to the final where, after winning 2-1 in Italy, Napoli came out on top after a topsy-turvy 3-3 draw in Germany. 

Inter Milan 1990/91 

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Inter went into the 1990/91 campaign with three World Cup winners in their ranks with Jurgen Klinsmann added to the German contingent of Brehme and Matthäus. But despite their best efforts, the Nerazzurri were knocked out of the Coppa Italia while their title challenge disintegrated after a run of just two of their final five games.  

Redemption came against Roma in the UEFA Cup final with Matthäus opening the scoring from the spot and Nicola Berti adding a second in a 2-0 first leg win. Roma dominated the return fixture and broke the deadlock late on, but could not find the second goal needed to take the final to extra time. 

Ajax 1991/92

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A youthful Ajax team featuring the likes of Dennis Bergkamp, Wim Jonk and Frank de Boer ensured Louis van Gaal avoided a trophyless debut season as manager. Upon his appointment, Van Gaal had congratulated the board on hiring "the best coach in the world" but those claims looked suspect after Ajax missed out on the Eredivisie and KNVB Cup. 

It took an away goals victory over Torino in the UEFA Cup final to turn the tide – but it was close. After drawing 2-2 in Turin, Ajax survived an onslaught from the Italians to draw 0-0 in Amsterdam with Torino hitting the woodwork three times and having a valid penalty appeal turned down.  

Juventus 1992/93

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Juventus spent big on Gianluca Vialli in the summer of 1992, but it was Roberto Baggio who took centre stage the following season. While Vialli struggled to adapt, the Divine Ponytail scored a career-best 30 goals and won the Ballon D’or for his efforts. 

Though he could do little to prevent Juve from slumping to fourth in Serie A, Baggio was the driving force behind the Bianconeri’s victory in the UEFA Cup. He scored three goals over two legs against Paris Saint Germain in the semis and dominated the final, scoring twice and assisting another in a record 6-1 aggregate victory over Borussia Dortmund

Parma 1994/95

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Parma were one of the standout teams in Italy back in 1995 but came perilously close to having nothing to show for the efforts of standout stars like Gianfranco Zola and Faustino Asprilla. 

That season’s UEFA Cup final changed all that and allowed legendary coach Nevio Scala to exact some modicum of revenge on Juventus; the team that had beaten them to the Scudetto and Coppa Italia. Facing off against the Bianconeri in an all-Italian final, Parma ultimately won through 2-1 on aggregate with Dino Baggio, signed from Juve a year earlier, scoring in both legs. About as sweet as it gets. 

Bayern Munich 1995/96

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The mid-1990s was a turbulent time for Bayern who earned the nickname ‘FC Hollywood’ in the press amid tales of the egos and in-fighting at the club. The 1995/96 campaign was no different. After finishing second to Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga and suffering an early exit from the DFB Pokal the players turned on new manager Otto Rehhagel. 

Jürgen Klinsmann was among the most vocal, criticising Rehhagel’s outdated tactics and man-management, despite Bayern reaching the UEFA Cup final.  Rehhagel was sacked three weeks before the final and watched on at home as interim boss Franz Beckenbauer led Bayern to a 5-1 aggregate win over Bordeaux

Inter Milan 1997/98

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The original Ronaldo was a man on a mission going into the 1998 UEFA Cup final against Lazio. Signed for a world record $27 million fee a year earlier, and despite the Brazilian scoring 25 goals in Serie A, Inter finished second to Juventus and were hammered 5-1 by AC Milan in the Coppa Italia. 

Eager to justify his hefty price tag, Il Fenomeno played like a man possessed at Parc des Princes, running Alessandro Nesta ragged and inspiring Inter to a 3-0 win. Ronaldo even rounded off the scoring with a brilliantly taken breakaway goal that featured one of his trademark stepovers.  

Atletico Madrid 2009/10

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Atletico Madrid were wretched for large parts of the 2009/10 season. A run of just one win in their first 11 La Liga games set the tone for the season. Atleti actually began the campaign in the Champions League yet failed to win a single game, sneaking into the Europa courtesy of a superior head-to-head record with Apoel. 

The Rojiblancos went on to win just two of the eight games they played on route to the Europa Legue final, twice advancing on away goals. Even with Diego Forlán and Sergio Aguero upfront, Atletico still needed extra time to see off plucky underdogs Fulham in the final.  

Atletico Madrid 2011/12

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The 2012 Europa League final was supposed to be the culmination of Marcelo Bielsa’s work at Athletic Bilbao. The Basque club had been the competition’s standout side, dispatching Manchester United in the last-16 with a performance Sir Alex Ferguson praised as “outstanding”. 

What Bielsa didn’t reckon with, however, was facing off against Diego Simeone and an Atletico Madrid team which was struggling domestically but excelling in the Europa League thanks to the goals of Radamel Falcao. Indeed, the Colombian was the difference in the final, scoring twice in the first half with Simeone’s tough-tackling team soaking up pressure before adding a third late on through Diego. 

Chelsea 2012/13

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Rafa Benitez is unlikely to win any popularity contests at Stamford Bridge, but he did make history with Chelsea, winning the 2013 Europa League to help the Blues became only the fourth club and first in England to have won all three major UEFA titles.  

Chelsea had lost in the semi-finals of the League Cup and FA Cup, were a distant third in the Premier League and suffered the ignominy of becoming the first reigning European Cup holders to drop into Europa League. Still, owner Roman Abramovich was able to crack a smile after Branislav Ivanovic headed in a stoppage time winner against in a 2-1 victory over Benfica at the Amsterdam Arena. 

Sevilla 2015/16

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Sevilla’s 2016 Europa League showdown with Liverpool was a winner-takes-it-all affair, with both teams way off the pace in their respective leagues and hoping to deliver Champions League football with victory in the final. 

Under new manager Jurgen Klopp, Liverpool had already defied the odds to get this far, coming back from 3-1 down against Borussia Dortmund to win 4-3 at Anfield in the quarter-finals. There would be no repeat against serial Europa League winners Sevilla though, who bounced back from falling behind to a brilliant Daniel Sturridge strike, with three unanswered second half goals.

Manchester United 2016/17

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Jose Mourinho described the Europa League title he won with Manchester United as the “most important” trophy of his career – and he wasn’t wrong. Without it, United’s haul of a single League Cup would have looked rather unimpressive.  More importantly, with the Red Devils finishing sixth, it would have meant no Champions League football the following year. 

In truth, United never really got out of first gear in the competition, narrowly squeezing through ties against Rostov, Anderlecht and Celta Vigo to set up a final against an inexperienced Ajax side. Mourinh took full advantage, setting United up to soak up pressure and hit Ajax on the break. The result was a forgettable 2-0 win.

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