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The Formula for a Champions League Fairytale

Johan Cruyff Arena on a sunny day - Mac Brown via COG Media

Football has been blessed with some incredible Champions League nights in recent years. There have been last-minute winners and VAR controversy, but the fairytale stories of Ajax in 2018 and, more recently, Villarreal in 2022 have taken all the hearts of football fans. Who's European campaign was more impressive, though?

A comparison between the two sides could gain insight into who achieved more and what the possible ingredients are to put together a European giant-slaying run in the tournament.

The Group Stages

Villarreal started their Champions League campaign in Group F with Manchester United, Atalanta, and Young Boys. Villarreal could not get the better of United during group stage play as they lost and drew against the Reds. They took care of business against Young Boys who were showing signs of strength themselves by beating Manchester United early on.

Group F of UCL 2021/22 - Google

Atalanta away on match-day six of six for group stage play became the most crucial match for both sides. With Villarreal sitting in 2nd with seven points and Atalanta right below with six, the victor of this match would secure their spot in the knockout rounds on the final day of qualification.

Bournemouth transfer Arnaut Danjuma scored a brace and Étienne Capoue notched his own before Atalanta ignited a late comeback finishing the match 3-2 to Villarreal.

Qualification was achieved after a tricky group of fixtures.

As for the 2018-19 Ajax team, they finished runners-up in their group as well. The Amsterdam team had Bayern Munich, Benfica, and AEK Athens in Group E.

Group E of UCL 2018/19 - Google

Ajax remained undefeated through the six group stage matches including two draws versus Bayern Munich, and a double over Athens.

The 3-3 draw versus Bayern Munich on match-day six was an indicator to many that Ajax was in the tournament as a serious team that can compete with teams that are favored to win the whole tournament.

A back-and-forth match where Bayern found themselves ahead twice, including in the 90th minute, ended with a Tagliafico equalizer just 5 minutes into added time. Ajax's togetherness and defensive commitment were shown through in the game as many saves and last-ditch tackles were flying around throughout the 90.

Knockout Paths

Following their victory over Atalanta, Villarreal faced yet another Italian side in Juventus for their round-of-16 matchup. Juve is known as one of the most successful and famous clubs in all of Europe with their historic pedigree. Villarreal was by far the smaller team even though they recently won the Europa League last season.

A 1-1 deadlock at home in the first leg was followed up by a 3-0 route at Allianz Stadium in Turin. It was a shocking result for the neutral, to say the least.

They were not given any favors when they were drawn with Bayern Munich in the following quarter-finals. A defensively solid 1-0 victory at home in the first leg left room for doubt as Bayern's star striker Robert Lewandowski was known for turning a tie on its head within minutes.

The second leg, at another Allianz location, Allianz Arena, ended 1-1. Lewandowski, unsurprisingly, scored in the 52nd minute to draw the tie level. This was until Samuel Chukwueze came off the bench to strike in the 88th minute to sway the advantage back to Villarreal.

Semi-finals it was for the Spanish side as they faced their biggest challenge yet.

Liverpool showed their class as Villarreal scratched their way back to 2-2 on aggregate after two first-half strikes in the second leg, but proceeded to slot three unanswered goals past Gerónimo Rulli to end it. It was a valiant and unexpected run for Villarreal which announced them as a serious European side.

Anfield crowd with banners - George M. Groutas via Den Store Danske

Ajax had a not too dissimilar journey to the semi-finals. They faced Real Madrid in the round-of-16 who had won the previous three Champions League titles.

A 2-1 loss at home in the first leg left Ajax with a mountain to climb at the Bernabeu. It was a mountain that they easily climbed as they put four past Los Blancos. An incredible performance by Dusan Tadic led this Ajax team to one of the most iconic scorelines in recent years.

Ajax then faced Juventus in the quarter-finals. This Juventus side was much more capable than the one that Villarreal faced in their run. This is in large part due to Cristiano Ronaldo being the forward for the Italians. He scored in both legs, but it was not enough as Ajax advanced on aggregate with another victory away from home.

All eyes were truly on Ajax now as it was one of the most impressive fairytale runs in the history of the competition, spearheaded by a group of fairly young players.

A match with Tottenham Hotspurs stood in Ajax's way to the final. Spurs were coming off a triumph of their own by beating eventual Premier League champions Manchester City on away goals.

Ajax was 45 minutes away from a Champions League final as they were up 2-0 in the second leg and 3-0 on aggregate. The Johan Cruyff Arena was shocked as they saw a Lucas Moura hattrick crumble their dreams. A 90+6 minute goal was the difference between advancing and being knocked out on away goals.

It was a cruel and drama-filled tie that ended with Ajax in tears, but their run earned the respect of many and meant that players like Frenkie De Jong and Matthijs de Ligt could progress to bigger clubs in the transfer window.

Team Chemistry

What relates these two teams the most is how technically and tactically brilliant they both were. It is difficult to pick out a serious weak spot in the Ajax 2018/19 and Villarreal 2021/22 starting 11's.

Both teams rarely, if not ever had above 45% possession across every knockout leg they faced in those campaigns, yet they managed to win a majority of them. This comes down to how strong they were as a team.

It is wrong to say that these teams did not have standout performers when the likes of Frenkie De Jong, Dusan Tadic, Arnaut Danjuma, and Gerard Moreno became crucial players in the big games.

What isn't wrong to say is that either team was carried by or relied upon one player to get them through each round.

Look at Karim Benzema for Real Madrid this season. Benzema is having one of, if not, the most impressive Champions League knockout campaigns of all time.

Karim Benzema wearing Real Madrid home kit 21/22 - FMSky via WikiMedia

This is obviously the biggest impact to Real Madrid's advancement to the final as he has scored in all but one knockout round game, including two hat-tricks.

Without his scoring, Real Madrid would have been out in the round-of-16.

For Ajax and Villarreal, they did not necessarily have one player that burst onto the scene, which makes their runs even more impressive.

This comes down to the great managers Erik ten Hag and Unai Emery.

ten Hag earned a job at Manchester United for his success at Ajax, and Unai Emery has earned back some respect that was lost during his time at Arsenal.

The Formula

So, what is the formula to create a fairytale run in the Champions League?

To start, the underdog team must have a title favorite or "big" club in their group. For example, if they have Bayern Munich or Manchester United, they must get some sort of result or decent effort against them over the two matches in the group stage.

Secondly, it is vital to take care of business against the other two teams in the group. A team can finish second in their group and advance, so they just have to be better than two teams, not three.

Next, it can go either way in terms of the team's best asset. On one hand for Ajax, the team can stay in any game due to their aptitude to score and create chances without a large amount of the ball.

On the other hand with Villarreal, a defensively solid team can always have a chance against the big clubs. If a team does not concede many goals, it only takes one or two clinical finishes to come away with a victory.

Lastly, a carefully and smartly crafted team goes a long way.

A team that has no clear weaknesses nor clear reliance on one player is difficult to beat. It is just as likely for a key striker to go cold and convert zero chances in a tie as it is for any random forward to catch fire and save a team.

The only difference is that there is no reliance on one random player to have a standout performance, so it does not affect the team's game plan. For Villarreal, Gerard Moreno (their first-choice striker) did not score the most crucial goals in their cup run. It was wingers Danjuma and bench player Chukwueze who did so.

So once the next group stages are set for next season's Champions League campaign, it will be worth it to keep an eye out for a team that fits these requirements to maybe, just maybe, surprise the competition.

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