Deportivo knew that three points at home to Paris Saint-Germain on 7 March 2001 would leave them on the cusp on a place in the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals, and that defeat would leave them requiring a result - probably victory - at AC Milan in their final Group B outing. Yet the cheers with which the fans greeted their heroes as they strolled on to the Riazor turf had turned into boos by the time they trundled in at the break. Indeed a deflected Jay-Jay Okocha strike had given PSG the lead, before Laurent Leroy slalomed his way between two opponents down the left, cut inside and masterfully curled the ball into the top corner to give the visitors a two-goal cushion.
Mauro Silva, Djalminha, Roy Makaay and Co expected louder reproach from coach Javier Irureta in the dressing room. Curiously, it was not forthcoming. “For the first five or six minutes of the interval, I didn’t say a word,” he explained. “It was a shocking performance, and I wanted the players to sit in silence and analyse what had happened and think about how to put it right.”
Irureta’s first words were to inform his players that Walter Pandiani would be replacing Emerson, before he urged them to get an early goal. Yet although the scoreboard did change ten minutes after the restart, it was because Leroy stroked home his second of the night to make it 3-0.
Only one team in Champions League history had recovered a three-goal deficit to win, Werder Bremen having scored five time in the last 25 minutes to beat Anderlecht 5-3 at the Weserstadion in December 1993. But that was not about to encourage Irureta into beginning a damage-limitation exercise, despite knowing goal difference could have a hand in which two teams advanced from a pool that also comprised Galatasaray.
Instead, he elected to take off midfielder Fran for striker Diego Tristan, who was impatiently waiting on the touchline for a break in play when Pandiani towered above his man at the back post and powerfully headed the ball into the back of Lionel Letizi’s net on 58 minutes. That gave Tristan the chance he needed to enter the fray, and moments later he nodded a corner home to reduce the PSG lead to just a goal.
Depor’s 76th-minute equaliser was not just scored with a header, but set up by one too, Makaay’s cushioned assist turned in by Pandiani. And the Uruguayan’s hat-trick and the Spanish champions’ fairytale fightback was complete six minutes from time, when the striker powered the ball into the roof of the Parisians’ net - with his head, naturally.
As it transpired, had Luis Fernandez's side held on for victory, they, and not Deportivo, would have taken on Leeds United in the last eight. But while they called the shots in the first 55 minutes, El Rifle (The Rifle) fired them thereafter to blow PSG's chances of advancing up in smoke.