Despite falling to Jürgen Klopp's Liverpool FC in the Round of 32, provincial Bavarian outfit FC Augsburg are the real winners of the 2015/16 UEFA Europa League.
In the end, there was only one goal in the decisive two-legged tie - a James Milner penalty at that - as the humble Fuggerstädter earned worldwide recognition for pushing one of club football's traditional giants to the very limit of their powers.
Drama from the start
It is a story just about as unexpected as the fifth-placed finish at the end of the 2014/15 Bundesliga campaign that catapulted Augsburg into the competition in the first place. Four years after gaining promotion to Germany's top flight, the club suddenly found themselves in the company of some of European football's finest for their first time in their modest history.
Expectations were reined in somewhat following chastening defeats to Athletic de Bilbao and FK Partizan Belgrade in their opening two Group L matches, but back-to-back wins over AZ Alkmaar set them on a course for the knockout rounds. They were made to sweat after letting slip a 2-1 lead in defeat to Bilbao, before getting the 3-1 victory needed to progress at Partizan's expense on Matchday 6.
Drawing a Liverpool side coached by former Borussia Dortmund mastermind Klopp in the Round of 32 certainly added an extra layer of mystique to the ensuing contest, yet Augsburg rose to the occasion. Backed by a fervent home crowd inside the WWK Arena, Markus Weinzierl's men gave themselves every chance of extending their Europa League stay after holding the 18-time English champions to a respectable goalless draw in the first leg. Although hopes were dashed a week later, there were only dry eyes in the house come the full-time whistle.
"We put up a real fight and we gave absolutely everything to try and spring a surprise, but in the end that little bit of luck was missing," said Weinzierl proudly. "We had our chances, but couldn't take them. It’s annoying that the goal we conceded was a penalty, but we can do anything to change that. FC Augsburg came knocking in Europe and we can be proud of how we performed."
Heartened for the fight
The overriding sense of pride and achievement shared by the Augsburg family extended into the terraces and beyond. Augsburg fans put on a breathtaking tifo that was widely applauded on social media prior to kick-off in the first leg, and matched Anfield's famous Kopites note for note in the return. In equal measures as the players and coaching staff, the travelling Függerstädter faithful played their part in arguably the club's most memorable night in living memory - the final 1-0 scoreline notwithstanding.
"The atmosphere was just incredible," said Augsburg sporting director Stefan Reuter, himself a UEFA Champions League winner as a player with Dortmund in 1997. "I have to pay the fans a massive compliment for what they showed here today. For us now it's just about taking the newfound self-belief with us into the Bundesliga. Together with the fans, our fight starts now and I'm absolutely convinced we'll still be in the Bundesliga at the end of the season."
As Reuter alluded to, Augburg's maiden European voyage has indeed had a knock-on effect domestically, with the yo-yoing Bavarians currently sitting just four points clear of 16th-placed SV Werder Bremen in the pre-Matchday 23 standings. Nonetheless, although there is still a long road ahead to set that particular record straight, the watching world will doubtless agree that Germany's second tier is no place for the infectious camaraderie and collective zeal of a club like FCA.