In the first ever European Club Championship, Real Madrid exceeded expectations by winning the tournament. Domestically, despite Alfredo Di Stefano’s league-leading 24 goals, they finished 3rd – 10 points behind champions Athletic Bilbao and nine behind second-placed Barcelona.
Madrid went 2-0 down to French outfit Stade de Reims in the European final at Parc des Princes, but a match-winning strike from Hector Rial completed a comeback as the Spanish giants won 4-3. It was a result that set the tone for Madrid’s historic five-year dynasty in the competition.
Despite hurdling Bayern Munich and Borussia Mönchengladbach in the UEFA Cup semi-finals and final respectively, Eintracht Frankfurt were repeatedly conquered in the Bundesliga during the 1979/80 season. They eventually ended the campaign way down in 9th, 18 points behind champions Bayern.
Their European exploits more than made up for that, though. Down 3-2 on aggregate to Gladbach in the final, Fred Schaub’s strike in the 81st minute of the second leg was enough for Frankfurt to lift the trophy, securing their spot in the competition for the following year.
Tottenham’s UEFA Cup success in 1984 came at the cost of a rather mediocre season in England’s top flight: champions Liverpool finished 19 points ahead of Spurs, whose 8th-place finish wouldn't have been enough to secure a European berth had they not defeated Anderlecht in the final of the UEFA Cup.
The Belgians – who, it was later learned, reached the final thanks to a spot of match-fixing – went toe-to-toe with Tottenham in a tie that finished 2-2 on aggregate. The English side ousted Anderlecht in a penalty shootout, though, thanks largely to Tony Parks’ tremendous save from Arnor Gudjohnsen’s (Eidur’s dad) spot-kick.
Inter have never been relegated from Serie A, but they came as close as they possibly could in 1994, finishing just one point above the drop zone.
A disastrous domestic campaign didn't preclude success on the continent, however: Inter won the UEFA Cup after a 2-0 aggregate triumph over Austria Salzburg in the final.
The 1996/97 Bundesliga season was one to forget for Schalke, who trailed champions Bayern Munich by a whopping 28 points in the final standings. The disappointment of finishing 12th was salvaged by their European exploits, though, with Roy Hodgson’s Inter overcome in a shooutout in the UEFA Cup final.
After winning the first leg 1-0, Ivan Zamorano struck late on in the return match to send the final to penalties. Schalke converted all four of theirs, but Zamorano’s effort was saved by Jens Lehmann and the Germans won the Cup.
La Liga in 1997/98 was dominated by Barcelona, who won the title and finished 11 points above Real Madrid. Los Blancos’ top scorer, Fernando Morientes, managed just 12 goals, while head coach Jupp Heynckes was sacked at the end of the season despite leading the club to their first Champions League crown since 1966.
Given their poor performance in the league, Madrid’s eighth European title was a remarkable achievement. Defending champions Borussia Dortmund were defeated 2-0 on aggregate in the last four, before overwhelming favourites Juventus were edged out 1-0 in the final.
As this list shows, Madrid have made a habit of recovering from domestic disappointment to become kings of the continent. In 1999/2000 the capital club finished 5th, but eased the pain by claiming another European trophy.
Managed by Vicente del Bosque, who inspired some memorable performances from the likes of Raul, Fernando Redondo and Roberto Carlos, Madrid beat the two previous finalists, Bayern Munich and Manchester United, in the quarter-finals and semi-finals respectively, before dismissing Valencia 3-0 in the first all-Spanish final.
Rafael Benitez’s first taste of Premier League football didn't go well, Liverpool finishing 5th behind local rivals Everton in 2004/05 – and level on points with Bolton.
They were a different beast altogether in Europe, though. Benitez’s side squeezed past Chelsea in the semis – the Blues finished 37 points above Liverpool in the top flight – and then produced a miracle in Istanbul as Milan’s 3-0 lead was cancelled out and the Reds won their fifth European Cup on penalties.
Carlo Ancelotti’s Milan had an impressive squad in 2006/07 but still struggled in Serie A. A Calcopoli-induced eight-point deduction didn't help, but the Rossoneri still ended the campaign 36 points behind city rivals and champions Inter.
Like Real Madrid, however, the Italian giants have European blood pumping through their veins; despite their domestic difficulties, they defeated Liverpool in the Champions League final – avenging their dramatic loss two seasons prior.
Chelsea’s Premier League showing in 2011/12 was their worst in a decade, the Blues finishing 25 points behind league winners Manchester United in 6th place. To compensate, they decided to go on a formidable run in the Champions League. Napoli’s 3-1 first-leg deficit was overturned in the last 16, before Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona were beaten in the semi-finals.
Bayern Munich dominated the final on home soil, but a late equaliser from Didier Drogba sent the match to extra time. Neither side could find another goal, giving Drogba the chance to become a hero once more by converting the winning penalty.