Words: Joe Brewin, Andrew Murray, Jon Spurling, Paul Simpson.
50. Leicester (2015/16)
You won’t find many one-season wonders in this list, but such was the magnitude of Leicester’s title win in 2015/16 that it’s hard not to give an acknowledging hat tip to the Foxes.
When we’re talking about the greatest teams, Claudio Ranieri produced a near-perfect one that achieved immortality in arguably the world's strongest league. How else could they have managed to topple England’s illustrious elite just 12 months after barely surviving the drop?
Sure, Leicester had their outstanding stars – Jamie Vardy had a direct hand in 36 league goals; Riyad Mahrez 29, while new boy N’Golo Kanté proved the seasonal revelation in central midfield. But their real strength was the collective bond that helped them eke out big results, week after week, when the pressure was at its most intense.
They separated themselves from good to great with 14 all-important victories by a single goal – five 1-0 wins coming in the six games from February 27 to April 3 – and beat Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City and Tottenham en route. Only two teams managed to return the same treatment all year.
In the end they won the title by 10 points. Ten points, for a team that needed six wins from its last eight games of 2014/15 to survive relegation. Surely their achievement – so unique it is – won't be repeated again. JB
49. Saint-Etienne 1973-77
You’d probably assume that Saint-Etienne’s greatest team would be the one Michel Platini led in the early ‘80s, before he ruled Europe with Juventus. You’d be wrong.
Underpinned by imposing Yugoslav keeper Ivan Curkovic, Argentine monster Osvaldo Piazza at centre-back and with attacking inspiration from Jean-Michel Larque, Herve Revelli and future Spurs boss Jacques Santini, Les Verts dominated French football for a decade from 1966, winning seven Ligue 1 titles, five Coupes de France and reaching the 1976 European Cup Final.
It was at Hampden Park, however, that things fell apart for Rhone club. Beaten 1-0 by two-time defending champions Bayern Munich, Saint-Etienne hit the post twice. Just unlucky? Perhaps, but Hampden’s famous square posts have haunted their fans ever since, many of whom remain convinced that either Dominique Bathenay or Santini’s strikes would’ve gone in with the more conventional round goal frame.
In 2013, the club paid £20,000 to take the posts from Hampden Park’s museum, while a restaurant in the shadow of Saint-Etienne’s world famous cathedral is called Les Pochetaux Carres, or Square Posts. Oh, what might’ve been. AM
48. Chelsea 2004-06
Jose Mourinho took a typically firm hold of an occasionally erratic Chelsea team after grabbing the reins in 2004, and turned them into a devastatingly effective unit.
He mixed the best of Claudio Ranieri's team (John Terry, Frank Lampard, Damien Duff and Claude Makelele were already at the club) with those already incoming for his debut campaign (Petr Cech and Arjen Robben), bringing in striker Didier Drogba and centre-back Ricardo Carvalho with Roman Abramovich's petrodollars to add a more physical and quicksilver edge to an already-talented team.
The Blues won successive, dominant titles in 2005 and 2006 (the former by 12 points, and only 15 goals conceded) with a brand of pressure football that earned them begrudged respect from non-Chelsea fans. Not that the self-proclaimed 'Special One' cared too much anyway, pointing out that he was in England to win silverware and not friends.
The Portuguese’s team was devastating from set-pieces and simply refused to allow setbacks to stall its progress. This was never better illustrated than in 2005, when despite losing the Champions League semi-final to Liverpool, Mourinho's men marched on relentlessly towards the league title anyway. JS
47. Wolverhampton Wanderers 1953-60
Clad in classic old gold, Stan Cullis's uncompromising and direct team powered their way to three league titles in nine years from 1953 onwards, missing a hat-trick of First Division titles and the FA Cup-League Double by just a point in 1959/60.
As well as being a dominant force on the domestic front, Wolves also enjoyed some memorable triumphs in unofficial floodlit international thrillers at Molineux against the likes of Hungarian giants Honved, which hastened the inauguration of organised international competition.
With a heavy emphasis on fitness and strength, Wolves's method of pumping long balls out of defence for their forwards to chase may have been dismissed as 'kick and rush' tactics, but in their nine peak success years they plundered 878 goals and topped the century mark in four consecutive First Division seasons.
"Take the shortest and quickest route to goal," insisted the demanding Cullis. With legendary skipper Billy Wright barking out his manager's orders on the pitch, the likes of tiny winger Johnny Hancocks and midfielder Bill Slater ensured their places in Molineux folklore. JS
46. Hamburg 1977-83
Hamburg had always been on the periphery of German football elite’s, until two tireless workers came together just after the club won its first European trophy in the 1977 European Cup Winners’ Cup.
Liverpool’s European Cup-winning star Kevin Keegan and coach Branko Zebec both trained ferociously, the latter so much so that his players were in open revolt after losing the 1980 European Cup Final to Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest.
Though it would be the Croatian manager’s drinking that marked his downfall – once saying “we have to win the next match” at half-time, believing the game to be over – the squad’s unflinching desire to run further and faster than the opposition brought three Bundesligas in four seasons, plus the 1983 European Cup against Juventus.
The constant was Felix Magath, Brede Hangeland’s future cheese botherer at Fulham, who fittingly scored a long-range winner against the Old Lady. It was a triumph for hard work everywhere. AM
Next: One list of teams Spurs finish above Arsenal in...
45. Marseille 1988-93
Determined to be a star, OM’s owner Bernard Tapie – who once played Jack Nicholson’s part on stage in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – set out to mastermind France’s first European Cup triumph. And if that meant bribery, match-fixing and doping, so be it.
In truth, Marseille were good enough to conquer Europe without skulduggery. They lost the 1991 final to Red Star Belgrade on penalties but, two years later, coached by the astute Raymond Goethals, swept to the final where they out-thought and outplayed defending champions Milan.
At the back, sweeper Basile Boli (whose header won the 1993 Champions League), and centre-back Marcel Desailly protected the spectacular, if inconsistent Fabien Barthez. In the middle of the park, Franck Sauzee shot accurately from anywhere; Didier Deschamps single-handedly exhausted opposing midfields and Abedi Pele had the pace and skill to bemuse a defender as great as Paolo Maldini.
- GREAT GOALS RETOLD Chris Waddle vs PSG, 1989
The attack – German World Cup winner Rudi Voller and skilful, powerful Croatia international Alen Boksic – wasn’t too shabby either. Barthez, Desailly and Deschamp won the World Cup with France five years later. PS
44. Arsenal 2003/04
Manager Arsene Wenger was roundly mocked when, in 2002, he'd suggested it was possible for his team to go through the league campaign unbeaten. Yet in the following season, after surviving two early season scares against Portsmouth (the Gunners scored a controversial penalty to grab a point) and at Old Trafford, when Ruud van Nistelrooy's last-minute spot-kick clattered against the bar to allow the Gunners an escape with a goalless draw, Arsenal emulated Preston's 'Invincibles' and won the league (at White Hart Lane, as it turned out) without defeat.
At the heart of the team were Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira – 'the three musketeers' who provided the skill, guile and, in the latter's case, the physical strength – to steer Arsenal to the summit. The fast and incisive pyrotechnic football they played was breathtaking, and in Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal arguably possessed the two greatest forwards in their history.
A chastening Champions League quarter-final defeat against an emerging Chelsea stung horribly, but in the league at least, Arsenal were untouchable. JS
43. Tottenham 1960-62
"We're going to win the Double for you this season Mr Chairman," Tottenham skipper Danny Blanchflower informed a sceptical Fred Bearman on the eve of the 1960/61 campaign.
When Spurs set a new First Division record by winning their opening 11 matches, putting four goals past both Wolves and Manchester United, it was clear that Blanchflower's prediction was no idle boast.
With strikers Bobby Smith and Les Allen notching goals for fun, the prodigiously gifted inside-forward John White dismantling opposition defences with his blind side runs and a rock-like Dave Mackay at the heart of midfield, Tottenham romped to the title with eight points to spare (in the days of two for a win) and defeated Leicester in the FA Cup final.
Spurs then added goalscoring machine Jimmy Greaves to the squad, retained the FA Cup and reached the European Cup semi-final (where they were denied in part by suspect refereeing), allaying manager Bill Nicholson's fears that they would be one-season wonders. Not for nothing was this superbly talented team known as the 'Super Spurs'. JS
42. Steaua Bucharest 1984-89
Truth is a rare commodity when it comes to former dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Yet for all the accusations of dictatorial favouritism that dogged Steaua Bucharest in the late ‘80s – including their lifting of the 1988 Romanian Cup despite abandoning a game at Ceasescu’s son’s say so – the fact remains that the Militarii went 104 domestic games unbeaten from June 1986 until September 1989.
Steaua were something like a Romanian Harlem Globetrotters, led by Victor Piturca and Miodrag Belodedici’s graceful sweeping artistry. If there was a player they liked, they just stole them. When they signed Gheorghe Hagi just for the 1986 European Super Cup, Ceausescu simply refused to allow the Maradona of the Carpathians back to Sportul Studentesc.
But to prove there was serious talent in this team, they also got to two European Cup finals, beating Barcelona on penalties in 1986 before losing 4-0 to Milan two years later.
That 1986 triumph summed up this fascinating side. Keeper Helmuth Duckadam saved all four penalties – later saying “if I hadn’t been a footballer I definitely would’ve become a psychiatrist” – but never played for the club again. Indeed, he vanished for three years amid rumours the Romanian secret police weren’t happy his penalty-saving heroics had earned him the bonus of a new car, and had cut one of his arms off. Duckadam had actually contracted a rare blood disorder. AM
41. Leeds 1968-75
In the Elland Road dressing room, manager Don Revie nailed a sign to the wall which read: 'Keep fighting.' His Leeds team, combining ruthless pragmatism with a shimmering of skill, did precisely that as football entered the technicolor age.
This was in spite of their numerous near misses both domestically and in Europe which, despite cutting Revie and his tight-knit bunch of players to the quick, only seemed to stiffen their fortress mentality. After capturing their all-important first trophy in 1968 (the League Cup), Leeds went on to win two League titles, two Fairs Cups and the FA Cup in 1972.
Throughout an often turbulent and controversial seven seasons, the Leeds line-up remained as grindingly consistent as the team. Johnny Giles, Billy Bremner, Norman Hunter and Jack Charlton earned the team its 'mean machine' tag, while Peter Lorimer's spectacular shooting, Eddie Gray's skilful wing play and Allan 'Sniffer' Clarke's goalscoring exploits gave the Whites their cutting edge up front.
Revie's men should have garnered more silverware, but after winning the '74 title in fine style, even Leeds's fiercest critics had to admit they were a superbly effective team. JS
Remember to come back throughout the week as we reveal the rest of our top 50...
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