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The Impossible Made Possible: The Stories of Europe’s Least Likely Champions

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In an era of too many predictable leagues races and super clubs, it often appears the safest investment anyone could make is to place an accumulator bet on Juventus, Celtic, PSG and Bayern Munich to win their domestic titles. However, every league is capable of surprises. Here is a reminder of the teams that defied the form book to be crowned the most surprising of national champions across Europe:

 

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Dundee United (1982-83 Scottish Premier Division)

The early 80’s were an exciting time for Scottish football. Alex Ferguson’s Aberdeen had broken the ‘Old Firm’ dominance of Celtic and Rangers by winning the 1980 title. Three years later, it was widely expected Aberdeen would tussle again with Rangers and Celtic for the title. However, nobody suspected there would be a fourth contender in Dundee United.

Jim McClean’s side relied on an excellent youth policy that produced a core group of players in defenders Dave Narey and Maurice Malpass, midfielder Eamonn Bannon, strike duo Davie Dodds and Paul Sturrock, and future Scotland Captain Richard Gough. United had finished a distant fourth in 1982, but hinted at their potential by making it to three successive Scottish League Cup Finals.

United didn’t start the season well with just two wins from their six, and a 5-1 drubbing from Aberdeen in November suggested third or fourth place would be their ceiling. United responded to adversity with seven straight wins into New Year, and although they were then beaten by both Aberdeen and Celtic, United just kept going.

In March, a brace from Ralph Milne secured a 2-1 win in Aberdeen. In early April, a Sturrock double saw United beat Rangers. Although they lost four days later to Celtic, they were now in the hunt. McClean’s team then produced an extraordinary run in to finish the season with six consecutive wins, including a crucial 3-2 victory over Celtic with Milne again scoring the vital third. They went into the final game of the season a point ahead of Celtic and Aberdeen, facing a tough away trip to crosstown rivals Dundee. Milner and Bannon grabbed the goals in a 2-1 win that secured United’s only League Championship.

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Hellas Verona (1984-85 Italian Serie A)

By the summer of 1984, Serie A was becoming the world’s best division, with Diego Maradona at Napoli, Michel Platini at Juventus, Falaco at Roma and Italy’s reigning World Cup winners residing largely with Juventus and Inter, nobody saw unfashionable Verona coming. Osvaldo Bagnoli built a side with an attacking mindset in an era still harking back to catenaccio, and that summer he added his own star import in Danish striker Preben Elkjaer. Bagnoli made another smart addition in German international Hans-Peter Briegel, joining a core of players lead by Antonio Di Gennaro, who won promotion from series B just two years earlier.

Verona started well with former Juventus striker Giuseppe Galderisi among the goals, including the opener in a 2-0 win over his former employers in the fifth game of the season, as Verona started by going fourteen games unbeaten. Verona pushed on and at the end of February struck a crucial blow when Di Gennaro grabbed the equaliser as they held Juventus to a 1-1 draw in Turin, keeping themselves at the top of the table with ten to play.

Next up Elkjaer scored the only goal in a 1-0 win over Roma and Galderisi scored twice in the second half to complete a 3-1 comeback win against Fiorentina in Florence. Of Italy’s usual suspects only Inter mounted a sustained challenge along with Sampdoria and Torino who got themselves into the hunt by beating Verona 2-1 with five games to play. But despite drawing three of the next four games Verona had done enough and a rampaging 4-2 win over Avellino in front of their home fans rounded off the club’s only Scudetto.

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Kaiserslautern (1997-98 German Bundeliga)

The 1998 Bundesliga title was supposed to be a contest between Giovanni Trapattoni’s Bayern Munich and Ottmar Hitzfeld’s Borussia Dortmund, nobody thought newly promoted Kaiserslautern would be a factor. Bayern had sacked manager Otto Rehhagel back in 1995 but he’d resurfaced with Kaiserslautern and in winning promotion had developed a settled side lead by goalkeeper Andreas Reinke, veteran sweeper Miroslav Kadlec, and striker Olaf Marschall. Upon promotion Rehhagel signed midfield schemer Ciriaco Sforza, he also had symbols of the german national team’s past in 37 year-old Andreas Brehme and future in 21-year-old Michael Ballack.

Rehhagel’s team started the season away to Bayern and recorded a shock 1-0 win thanks to Michael Schjonberg’s late goal, after four weeks of the season they were top of the table. Kaiserslautern’s excellent start looked like finally been ended at the Westfallen where Dortmund took an early 2-0 lead, but a double from Marschall snatched a valuable point to keep the unlikely title bid on track.

Kaiserslautern’s energetic style saw them find winning goals in injury time a remarkable six times through the season, with Marschall bagging 21 goals across the campaign. However the key was Kadlec who supremely marshalled the defence and instigated attacks. A crucial blow was struck before Christmas as Kaiserslautern completed a double over Bayern thanks to an early own goal and Marijan Christow’s late strike. Despite losing their next fixture to Hertha, another late strike from Schjonberg snatched a 3-2 win over FC Cologne to send Rehhagel’s side into the winter break top of the league.

The impressive run continued when the league resumed, but as the title homed into view Kaiserslautern wobbled in late March with a 3-0 home loss to Leverkusen. It looked like being two defeats in three when they trailed to Dortmund, with Bayern breathing down their necks. However, a late equaliser from Pavel Kuka settled the nerves and won a valuable point. Another late winner from Marschall secured a dramatic win over Borussia Monchengladbach and with a game to spare Kaiserslautern sealed the title with a 4-0 thrashing of Wolfsburg. They remain the only side in German history to win the title straight after promotion.

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Deportivo de La Coruna (1999-2000 Spanish La Liga)

Most surprise title wins come when a team seizes their once in a lifetime chance, Deportivo thought they’d blown theirs in 1994. Needing to win the final game of the season against Valencia, they allowed the title to slip through their fingers when they saw a late penalty saved and Barcelona pip them on goal difference. They were runners up again in 1995 but the next four season saw three mid-table finishes.

However in the summer of 1999 second year coach Javier Irureta took a gamble in the transfer market by signing Dutch striker Roy Makaay for €8.6million and added one time Real Madrid prospect Victor Sanchez on the right wing. There were other bright talents in the squad most notably the technically brilliant but temperamental playmaker Djalminha. Patrolling midfield were Djalminha’s fellow Brazilians Mauro Silva and Flavio Conceicao whilst captain Fran offered skill down the left.

Makaay’s importance was illustrated on his debut as his stunning hat trick secured a 4-1 hammering of Alavés. Djalminha then struck in the Bernabéu to earn a draw with Real Madrid. However, Deportivo lost their next match at home to Numancia in what became an incredibly tight division that saw everybody lose at least seven times and Betis ultimately relegated on a credible 42 points.

Late October saw Deportivo face back to back fixtures against their biggest title challengers. At the Mestalla, Valencia comfortably beat Deportivo but the following week an early brace from Makaay was enough to beat Barcelona 2-1.

The Barca win began a sequence of seven straight wins including a 5-2 hammering of Sevilla, after 12 games Deportivo were top of the table. However the run ended with a 2-1 loss to Real Zaragoza that began a run of four defeats in six that stretched to the end of January as Deportivo wobbled. Real Madrid’s visit to the Riazor was pivotal and Djalminha turned in a magical display to conjure a 5-2 win. Victory over Valencia kept Deportivo in the lead entering the run in as they reeled off four wins from five.

As an unlikely title was in touching distance nerves jangled as Deportivo conceded late goals to drop points against Celta Vigo and Real Zaragoza. With two to play Barcelona and Valencia were still chasing Deportivo down and a 0-0 draw with Racing Santander meant it would go to the final game. But at home against Espanyol an early goal from Donato settled nerves in A Coruna and fittingly a neat finish from Makaay guaranteed redemption and a first and only La Liga win for Deportivo.

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Boavista (2000-01 Portuguese Primiera Liga)

Portugal do close title battles better than most European leagues, but entering the 2000-01 season the title would always be won by one of ‘Tres Grandes’, Porto, Sporting or Benfica. Porto’s crosstown rivals Boavista had always been also-rans, but the appointment of manager Jaime Pacheco in 1997 saw an upturn in the club’s fortunes with the club finishing second in 1999 and fourth in 2000. That summer Pacheco re-signed midfielder Erwin Sanchez after a poor spell at Benfica, the creative Sanchez would be the star of the unlikely title run. However Boavista were built chiefly on a sturdy defence marshalled by future Portugal number one Ricardo in goal. Another future Portugal international, midfielder Petit would also play a key role along with wingers Martelino and Duda.

Boavista started the season with a bang, Duda bagged a double in a 4-2 win over SC Beira-Mar, they followed that up with another four goal show in a 4-0 hammering of Uniao Leiria. The fifth game of the season saw the first big test when Benfica were the visitors, but an early goal from Duda handed Boavista a 1-0 win. Boavista’s defensive record was remarkable conceding just twelve goals in their first twenty games. However they hardly one nilled their way to glory, turning in stunning five goal displays against mid-table duo Alverca and Salgueiros during December.

Neither Benfica nor Sporting could keep pace, but Porto weren’t going away, the first derby of the season was at Boavista that January with Martelino grabbing the only goal and handing the initiative firmly to Boavista. In February Boavista lost to SC Braga who surprisingly completed the double over them, but the expected title wobble never materialised. Boavista won an important point away at Benfica and then won five of the next six heading into a home game with Sporting. Martelinho was the hero again with his last minute winner sending Boavista into the run in on a high. They reeled off another four straight wins to clinch the title in style, with an emphatic 3-0 win over CD Aves and a game to spare. It was the first time in 55 years the title eluded all of the big three and remains the only League Championship in Boavista’s history.

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Montpellier (2011-12 French Lique 1) 

Montpellier finished the 2011 season in 14th place, the following season was supposed to be a battle between champions Lille, longstanding favourites Lyon & Marseille and the nouveau-riche PSG. Montpellier under the stewardship of Rene Girard had no big money signings but an incredibly strong team spirit. They also had a diamond in the rough in Olivier Giroud, the 25 year old target man having arrived from Lique 2 club Troyes the previous summer.

Montpellier sprung a surprise in the second game of the season when they won away at champions Lille, with Giroud bagging the only goal of the game. But a narrow defeat two weeks later in Lyon and a 3-0 hiding from PSG in September seemed to confirm Montpellier were not serious title contenders. Three weeks later came a notable turning point, Montpellier went 2-0 behind at home to struggling Dijon after just 11 minutes. An own goal began the fightback before a Giroud hat trick sealed an impressive 5-3 victory, it started a run of 19 points gained from 21 available.

Most expected Montpellier’s challenge to fade after the winter break, but instead Montpellier hit an extraordinary run of form. The run started with Giroud again on target in a 1-0 win over Lyon. It was the first of three straight 1-0 wins for a side who won by that score eleven times over the season. It was testament to a strong backline of goalkeeper Geoffrey Jourden, fullbacks Garry Bocaly & Henri Bedimo and centre back duo Map Yanga-Mbiwa & Vitorino Hilton. However PSG were not giving up and a late equaliser denied Montpellier a win in a 2-2 draw at the Parc des Princes.

Montpellier pressed on, an impressive 3-1 in Marseille that April had fans believing the impossible dream was close to reality. The run in was tough and Montpellier had to keep winning with three to play. Away to Stade Rennes a first half goal from Souleymane Camara set Montpellier on their way to a 2-0 win. Then came the visit of Lille who still had an outside chance to overtake them, the game appeared to be heading for a draw but in injury time Giroud set up substitute Karim Art Fana for yet another 1-0 win. On the final day a point was required away to relegated Auxerre, but the dream almost fell apart when Auxerre took a first half lead. Winger John Utaka then took centre stage, his close range finish levelled the match before halftime. Crowd trouble saw a delay in the match, but when play resumed a shot on the turn from Utaka flew in and Montpellier were champions.

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Leicester City (2015-16 English Premier League)

In the summer of 2015 bookmakers were offering odds of 5000/1 on Leicester to win the Premier League. The pessimism wasn’t without reason, Leicester had been bottom of the table in February before a late season surge saw them finish 14th. In the summer Leicester had controversially dismissed manager Nigel Pearson and replaced him with journeyman coach Claudio Ranieri. Chief scout Steve Walsh slipped Ranieri an underrated (at the time) ace by signing defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante for just £5million, joining other hidden gems Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

The manager nicknamed ‘tinker man’ didn’t live up to his name sticking with a settled side and simplistic 4-4-2 formation throughout the season. Leicester never got outnumbered in the middle of the park because Kante appeared to be doing the job of two players. Leicester started with seven points from the first three games and Mahrez scored four goals in that time. In saying that, a 5-2 drubbing from Arsenal in September suggested they couldn’t compete with the league heavyweights. Leicester responded with eight wins and two draws from the next ten games, including a Mahrez inspired 2-1 win over demoralized champions Chelsea and Leicester were improbably top of the table at Christmas.

Most pundits still dismissed Leicester’s title chances with many predicting they’d fail to stay in the top four with Arsenal and Manchester City the favourites. But rather than fade in the new year, Leicester pulled away. In January a late Robert Huth header handed them a surprise 1-0 away win over Tottenham, then in early February came three critical fixtures in the space of twelve days, starting at home to Liverpool. A stunning twenty yard volley from Vardy broke the deadlock for a 2-0 win. Next up Leicester traveled to the Etihad to face Manchester City, few expected a Leicester win but they blitzed City with Huth scoring twice and Mahrez blasting in from range in a 3-1 win. Then came a trip to Arsenal and Danny Welbeck’s injury time winner had many predicting Leicester would now fall away.

Instead the opposite happened, Leicester didn’t lose again all season and put together a run of six wins from seven as they made easy work of the run in, never looking like slipping up. The biggest surprise proved how easily they secured the title when closest rivals Totteham only drew at Chelsea giving Leicester the title with two games to spare.

Featured Image: Daily Mail

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Jonathan Fearby

Jonathan Fearby is a United Kingdom native. Prior to joining The Athletes Hub as a staff writer, he founded and operated Football England.

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