It’s May and all seems to be going pretty much as expected in Europe’s title races, but it wasn’t always thus. Louis Massarella assesses the teams who had no right to become league champions – but eventually did...
May can spring a surprise or two, as unexpected winners lift league titles across Europe. Sadly, that's not quite the case this season. Juventus have won their fourth straight Serie A crown and Bayern their third Bundesliga on the bounce, while Chelsea's Premier League triumph is neither a shock nor an upset. Meanwhile PSG seem set fair to top the table in France, Barcelona in Spain and Portugal's title will be either Benfica's 34th or Porto's 28th. However, it hasn't always been this way - even quite recently...
With respect to Motherwell, whose 1932 Scottish title triumph was the only one outside the Old Firm between 1904 and 1947, they had finished third the previous season. The Dark Blues, on the hand, were down in 10th at the end of 1960/61, nine points off relegation and 19 behind champions Rangers.
With key midfielder Jimmy Gabriel departing for Everton, Bob Shankly’s men were also-rans at best. But the Dundee manager was as wily an operator as little brother Bill, who wheeled and dealed in the transfer market. And after a 19-game unbeaten run at the start of the season his team never looked back.
Before 1967, no team from outside Buenos Aires’ ‘Big Five’ had won the Argentine title – and the minnows from along the River Plate in La Plata weren’t expected to either when Osvaldo Zubeldia took over. But by polishing diamonds from the reserve team and preparing more meticulously than perhaps any manager before him, he turned the curiously-nicknamed Rat-Stabbers into title winners within two years – not to mention triple South American champions within five. Even if it did involve the odd cynical foul or 20.
Despite taking Fulham to a European final and his country to a World Cup, Roy Hodgson has no doubts about his greatest achievement in the game: “the water-into-wine job at Halmstads BK”. Having avoided relegation on goal difference the season before the Englishman took over, the Swedish strugglers were everybody’s tip for the drop, but using a 4-4-2 that was big on pressing high up the pitch and zonal marking – something Hodgson, along with Bobby Houghton, had helped introduce to Scandinavia – the club won their first league title, repeating the feat three years later to prove it wasn’t a fluke.
Nottingham Forest, 1977/78
Monaco (1978), Saint-Etienne (1964), Dutch side DWS (also ’64), Alf Ramsey’s Ipswich (1962) and Spurs (1951, including Ramsey the player) are among those teams to win the league title a year after being promoted, but none were enough to make our top 10. Brian Clough’s Forest not only did it after finishing third in the second tier the previous year, they also managed to outdo a vintage, Euro-conquering Liverpool side – by seven points, three years before the introduction of three points for a win. Impressive.
Hellas Verona, 1984/85
There are two ways of looking at Verona’s sole Scudetto. Many view it with cynicism and suspicion, given it came in the only season Serie A’s authorities assigned referees randomly rather than by committee – in an attempt to clean up calcio’s image after a(nother) betting scandal. Or you could take the view that the likes of Juventus, Roma and Milan’s big two might not have had it their own way so often had this temporary system been permanently installed. Either way, Osvaldo Bagnoli’s side, inspired by Danish dynamo Preben Elkjaer and German general Hans-Peter Briegel – with a few in-form Italian internationals thrown in for good measure – shook the established order, losing just twice to claim the title by four points.
Otto Rehhagel had revenge on his mind when his unfancied Kaiserslautern became the first team in Bundesliga history to win the title at the first time of asking. After 13 successful years at Werder Bremen, King Otto had been kicked off his throne barely 13 months into his reign at Bayern Munich – sacked on the eve of the second leg of the 1996 UEFA Cup Final. Retreating to the Red Devils, who had just been relegated, he took them back up straight away and, using his eye for talent, moulded a team that had the beating of Bayern in both games – and pipped the champions by two points. Take that, FC Hollywood.
“We are the champions, because we are the best!” exclaimed Jaime Pacheco. Yep, that’s generally how it works, mate. But the Boavista boss’s baffled buoyancy was shared by everybody connected with Porto’s second club, because the title triumph – with a game to spare – remains only the second time in the history of Portuguese football than a team from outside the big three (Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, in case you didn’t know) has topped the table – and the first was 55 years earlier. Their secret? “There is no other team in Europe that runs as much,” said then-Roma gaffer Fabio Capello.
FC Twente, 2009/10
They wrote a book in Enschede called It’s A Miracle when the city’s football team, FC Twente, qualified for the Champions League in 2009. A year later, Steve McClaren was again walking on water – rather than drowning in it, as he’d done at Wembley in his last act as England manager 18 months earlier. ‘The wally with the brolly’ was singing in the rain when his team clinched Twente’s first league title with a 2-0 win at Breda, seven years after the club had gone bankrupt.
Club Tijuana, 2012 Apertura
Club Tijuana may sound like a Wham! song, but the Mexicans’ first hit came nearly a quarter of a century after the duo's heyday – and just five years after the boys from the Baja California border city came into existence. Formed in 2007, Los Xolos (named after mangy-looking Mexican mutts) won just their third tournament following promotion to the top flight. Having finishing behind Toluca on goal difference, they beat the same side 4-1 in a two-legged play-off. ¡Ariba!
Atletico Madrid, 2013/14
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On paper, Deportivo La Coruna’s sole Spanish title triumph in 2000 – having finished down in sixth the previous season – looks like the most unlikely in La Liga history, but it’s easy to forget just how dark Diego Simeone’s horses were last season.
Having finished a distant third in 2012/13, 24 points behind champions Barcelona, and with prolific top scorer Radamel Falcao taking the money and running to Monaco, Atleti were 300/1 to overhaul the big two. Even with eight games to go, they were 5/1 third favourites, but a 1-1 final-day draw at the Camp Nou was enough to secure a three-point triumph over their hosts… and their beloved neighbours.