If Benfica’s hosting of Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg of their 1993/94 UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup quarter-final had been an appetiser of what was to come, few would have anticipated a feast at the BayArena. There had been few chances and just two goals, evenly shared and both aided by poor defending, in Lisbon.
As Águias had been the happiest at the final whistle, thanks to Isaías’s last-gasp equaliser, but it was Die Werkself who began the second leg as the favourites to go through. Dragoslav Stepanovic’s side boasted highly-regarded performers such as Christian Worns, Ioan Lupescu, Bernd Schuster, Andreas Thom and Ulf Kirsten, while Benfica were in a financial crisis and had never won in Germany.
True to the script, Bayer appeared cruising into the semis with little over a half-hour remaining, Thom having craftily set up Kirsten’s deadlock-breaker before sending Schuster through to make it 2-0.
Yet 90 seconds was all Benfica required to dramatically pull level and, with the away-goals rule in operation, take the driving seat. And while Rui Costa creating the two goals was hardly surprising – the No10 made the first with a sublime back-heel and the second with a pinpoint cross – nobody could have expected them to come from a thunderous long-range strike from right-back Abel Xavier and a rare header from the diminutive Joao Pinto. Another unlikely source then seemingly sealed Benfica a meeting with Parma, defensive midfielder Vassily Kulkov racing on to a superb Rui Costa through-ball to fire the visitors into a 3-2 lead.
Leverkusen had just ten minutes to find two goals. They needed just two. First, substitute Paulo Sergio sped down the left and crossed for Kirsten to restore parity. Then another header, this time from Pavel Hapal, put the hosts 4-3 up.
A dramatic duel that had swung one way then the other nevertheless had one final twist in its dying embers – one roared in a Portuguese tone with an unmistakable Russian twang. Joao Pinto jinked his way through the midfield and slipped the ball through to Kulkov, who delightfully finished with the outside of his boot to snatch Benfica a 4-4 draw that sent them through on away goals.
“It’s inexplicable how we managed to come back from two goals down, away from home to win it,” gasped Kulkov afterwards. After such extraordinary drama, the Muscovite had forgotten that Benfica had drawn rather than won in Leverkusen. The night of 15 March 1994 will, nevertheless, remain infinitely imprinted in the mind of Kulkov and the Águias fans fortunate to witness one of the greatest games in the history of European club competition.