Six title wins in European football that defied all expectations

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Six title wins in European football that defied all expectations

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Rahul Dev Bose


“Okay, you dream for us. We do not dream. We simply work hard.”

Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City are on the verge of the extraordinary. Having remained on top of the Barclay’s Premier League table for the longest time, ‘The Foxes’ will look to finish ‘the job’ by lifting the trophy that they seem all but destined to win.

Ranieri is cautious when fans tell him that they are now dreaming of the eventual moment of glory that Leicester City are on the verge of. He keeps talking of working hard and keeping their heads down as they lay siege on the title. Should the lot achieve the unthinkable, they will join the ranks of a select number of other teams who’ve achieved something similar.

Here’s a list of six teams that turned the topography of their respective leagues inside out by achieving the unthinkable and grabbing the title.

Montpellier: 2011-12

The 2010-11 season came to a close with the likes of Monaco, Lens and Aries-Avignon relegated and only 3 points away from the dreaded drop were relegation rivals Montpellier. Sat at 14th on the Ligue 1 table, the French side were set to spend another season struggling for their top flight fortunes in the season to come, or such was the opinion of most of the pundits.

What happened in the next season was nothing short of magical. Not only did Montpellier win the Ligue 1 title, they won it with the then second highest points tally in the history of Ligue 1. Certainly not bad for a side that functioned on a £29 million annual overall club budget that season and even more impressive considering the runners up, Paris St. Germain had spent £37 million ever so trivially on the purchase of Javier Pastore alone.

Powered by a certain Olivier Giroud’s 21 goals and 9 assists in the league, Rene Girard’s charges won the title after it went down to the last game of the season. PSG had won their game prior to Montpellier’s match ending, Montpellier needed to avoid a loss to win the title and it took Rene Girard’s men everything they had, to come from behind against an Auxerre side facing the wrath of their own fans throughout the game -Auxerre had been relegated by then and fans threw items on the field and lit flares in the stands eventually throwing them onto the pitch in disgust- to seal the miracle with a win that had become so characteristic of this well balanced Montpellier side.

FC Kaiserslautern: 1997-98

FC Kaiserslautern’s Bundesliga triumph in the year 1996 was a matter of immense shock for all those following the Bundesliga at the time. It seemed possible at the time that Kaiserslautern’s legacy as part of the German elite was about to disintegrate into nothing, as a side that had finished in the UEFA Cup qualification spots the season before and the German Cup finalists of that very season were on their way down.

As destiny would have it however, Kaiserslautern did not stay in the second division for long. They had miraculously managed to retain their entire squad from the top division with no one feeling the urge to move on to greener pastures. In fact, they managed to hold on to stars like Andreas Brehme, Miroslav Kadlec and Michael Schjonberg amongst all the interest in these players.

However, the one factor which changed everything for Kaiserslautern was Bayern Munich’s sacking of Otto Rehhagel (you might remember him as the man who led Greece to Euro 2004, which was nothing short of a miracle in itself). Now in the second division, Kaiserslautern wasted no time in snapping Otto Rehhagel’s services up and as expected the team came firing back into Division One.

What happened next, was unheard of in the Bundesliga. Otto Rehhagel’s men came to face Bayern Munich on the first matchday of their returning season. Not only did they beat Bayern that day but started the course for a chain of results that left the entire world staring at their march towards the title,which they eventually won. No one had done this before. No one in the Bundesliga had won the top flight title right after gaining promotion to it.

Olaf Marschall plundered 21 goals for the Kaiserslautern side that season as this also became the year that a young Michael Ballack made his first 16 top flight appearances alongside Kaiserslautern’s only major transfer foray that season, Ciriaco Sforza from Inter Milan. Together, the midfield duo was unstoppable for most part of the season that saw their side defeated only four times.

Most of the players put it down to Rehhagel’s ability to build teams and get them to play together in the right fashion. "He knows how to use the players at his disposal. With us, he knew we had to attack and play power football” said Sforza when asked of Rehhagel’s management. Otto Rehhagel would go on to prove he knew what it takes to succeed at the highest level all over again as he engineered a Euro 2004 victory for unfancied Greece, a feat that takes precedence over his achievement with Kaiserslautern, but only by a whisker.

Hellas Verona: 1984-85

Back in the day when Italian football was ravaged by an onslaught of corruption and scandalous inquests, a certain side filled with fringe players from the ‘bigger clubs’ managed to wrench out of the hands of the very same big clubs the Serie A title, in rather spectacular fashion.

Hellas Verona was taken to the very summit of Italian football by Osvaldo Bagnoli, who coached the side up from the Italian Serie B to the point where they emerged as Italian Serie A champions. Combining some shrewd business, inch perfect tactics with impeccable man-management, Bagnoli took the Italian game by storm with his team of misfits, achieving top half finishes, European Qualification and eventually the big prize.

It was September 1984, when Diego Maradona arrived in the Serie A at Napoli eventually leading the Sicilian side on to the greatest achievements in Napoli lore. However, his house warming party was spoiled spectacularly by Hellas Verona as their own German import, Hans-Peter Briegel (brought in from Kaiserslautern), who shackled the mercurial Argentine with a surprisingly complete footballing display that was capped off with the opening goal of the game. There onwards, Hellas took complete control of the game as they scored a second through forward, Giuseppe Galdersi with Napoli pulling one back, only to eventually concede a goal, this time scored by midfielder, Antonio Di Gennaro to complete the rout.

This victory, covered by a shell shocked media, marked the beginning of a special run that saw Hellas Verona race into the top of the table with a particularly powerful display sweeping aside Juventus, a side who have been permanent fixture in the Italian game’s elite. The midfield duo of Antonio Di Gennaro and Hans Pieter Briegel had steamrollered every team in sight and the ‘Gialloblu’ forward line of Preben Elkjaer (signed that season from Belgian side Lokeren) and Giuseppe Galdersi plundered 20 goals between them that season.

Using the best of a fluid formation that kept switching between 3-5-2, 4-4-2 and 4-3-3 (flexibility unheard of at the time in the Italian game), Bocagnoli had his team sit deep instead of pressing high and when the opposition gave up the ball, the Hellas Verona players counter-attacked with ferocity incomparable in nature. The media and pundits were left baffled as it wasn’t until the last six games of the season that most people truly believed Hellas Verona could actually win the title.

They won the title suffering only two defeats in the entire season and with a tally of 43 points, , the same as the champions of the last two years, no one could question their quality and ability or the competence of their rivals that season. No mean feat that.

Nottingham Forest: 1977-78

“It was congratulations all round. But then, of course, you spend the next few months worrying whether we are actually capable of playing in the higher league and whether we would even get the chance. Will it be too big for us? Will the step be enormous?”

Martin O’Neill was still a player when Nottingham Forest won promotion to the Division One of English Football in 1977 under the stringent stewardship of Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. Little did he know, that as he lay there thinking about whether the jump upwards would be too much for Forest (they had been promoted with the fifth lowest points tally for a promoted side in history) , Brian Clough and Peter Taylor had started planning Nottingham Forest’s rise up the League Table before even a single ball was kicked.

Nottingham Forest were the bookies’ favorites to drop down back into Division Two within a season of being promoted. However, that didn’t deter Clough and Taylor from signing three players of high caliber before October that year. In came the likes of Peter Shilton, Kenny Burns and Archie Gemmil, three players who went on to be the backbone of this Forest side.

Kenny Burns was a weird signing even if he was a world class one. Burns was a striker known to possess more bad karma than any footballer known then. A perpetual brawler who hated authority as much as he hated his teammates, Burns was always in and out of trouble and was even rumored to have a gambling addiction. Such was the negativity Burns brought to a dressing room, that Birmingham City chairman, David Wiseman warned Brian Clough against the purchase (Birmingham were also, rather strangely the club selling him).

If that wasn’t weird enough, Brian Clough insisted that the Scotland International striker played in defense. This wasn’t your average everyday striker either, Kenny Burns had scored 20 goals in 38 games the season before Nottingham bought him. However, regardless of the logic behind the idea was, it worked. Kenny Burns went on to win the FWA Footballer of the Year that year playing in defense alongside Larry Lloyd.

Nottingham Forest went on to surprise the world as they routed title contenders Everton at their own home ground in the first game of the season, a performance that saw Bill Shankly, now former Liverpool manager, walk into their dressing room and tell the boys at Nottingham Forest that if they kept performing like that, they would win the title.

Win the title they did and spectacularly so as the Forest team beat the likes of Derby County, West Ham and Bristol City with deliberate ease and picked up momentum that didn’t cease all season. In 42 games, Nottingham Forest lost only thrice and beat runners up Liverpool to the title by a good 7 points. Peter Shilton conceded only 18 goals in his 37 games that season with Nottingham conceding only 24 goals overall.

Nottingham Forest went on to win two European Cups after that momentous domestic title win but nothing compares to the feat that was lifting the title after being promoted less than a year back. As for Brian Clough, he went on to become an invaluable part of English Football history.

Wolfsburg: 2008-09

There was a sense of foreboding when the season began for Wolfsburg in 2008 and it was partially down to the fact that the squad did not boast of great strength or depth that season and they had been finishing mid table for the last few seasons. As the season progressed Wolfsburg fans breathed a sigh of relief as they seemed relatively safe from any disaster sitting at 9th in the Bundesliga during the winter break. They were about 9 odd points away from the league leaders and didn’t seem all that perturbed by anything happening at the top end of the table.

What most people did not anticipate was the incredible ‘Ruckrunde’ they were about to have. Woflsburg began the year rather simplistically with a regulation draw in the game away to Koln but what happened next was magical. Wolfsburg ravaged teams that faced them in the next ten games. Wolfsburg coach, the enigmatic Felix Magath had already had his team playing some intense attacking football but during that time, the team became completely ruthless in their execution of it. Powered by the celestial partnership of Brazilian Grafite and Bosnian Edin Dzeko, Wolfsburg played hosts to Bayern and annihilated them 5-1 in the most inexplicable fashion. It was a call to arms for the players who could sniff the chance to win the title languishing just around the corner.

A number of blips along the way had both leaders Wolfsburg and second placed Bayern differ by just 2 points on the final day. Bayern dispatched Stuttgart 2-1 on the final day piling the pressure onto Wolfsburg who needed a win against Werder Bremen who had beaten them 5-2 in the German Cup earlier. Wolfsburg didn’t disappoint as they went on to completely overpower the Bremen side 5-1 to majestically lift the Bundesliga trophy. Grafite had scored an impeccable 28 goals and partner Edin Dzeko right behind him with 26. Fellow attacker Zvjezdan Misimovic had plundered 20 assists to boot.

"It is a dream come true," said Magath “Before the season started I never thought we had a chance to win the championship.”

That’s what made it so special Mr. Magath, neither did anyone else!

Stuttgart: 2006-07

“You can’t ever win anything with kids!”

Famous last words as they could have been, Alan Hansen was taught a lesson or two for having uttered those words lazily in front of an entire world watching and listening to him. His words though echoed, were torn apart by Manchester United later.

However, a lesser cited example of how Hansen was wrong on that occasion is the lesser followed Stuttgart who stunned the entire Bundesliga line up with the heroics of their young side. To put things into perspective, this was a side that fielded Mario Gomez (then 21) and Sami Khedira (then 20) as regulars with most players touching 24-25 years of age at most.

Over the years they had lost top players like Philip Lahm, Alexander Hleb and Kevin Kuranyi over the last three years and even coach Felix Magath to other Bundesliga clubs or abroad.

This was also a team that had finished 9th in the previous season and had ended up with more losses and draws than wins in that campaign.

From that situation to win the Bundesliga and also reach the final of the German cup, you’d need something special. Something special it was for Armin Veh’s side, who began the season with two defeats, that saw their team in the relegation zone. To make matters worse, they were two goals down to Werder Bremen the next game before they rallied to win the game 3-2. This led to a nine game unbeaten run which saw them push up to the top by winter break.

After the initial hiccup, VfB went on to deliver results that most people did not see coming, while teams around them started dropping points. Mario Gomez had started scoring freely and ended the season with 14 goals while fellow striker Cacau notched up another 18 in all competitions to push Stuttgart to within touching distance of the title that year. In the last 8 games, the Stuttgart team went on a rampage and won all of them, and beating a beleaguered Schalke 04 to the title by 2 points in the process.

Stuttgart would repeat the feat the following year as well, but this one was truly special.

Honourable Mentions

  • Deportivo La Coruna: 1999-2000

  • Dundee United: 1983-84

  • Aston Villa: 1980-81

  • Valencia 2001-02

  • Atletico Madrid: 2013-14

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