Tuesday, May 28, 2024
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Six brilliant stories from the European football season

The European football season will reach its conclusion this month and it’s been an unforgettable campaign of action across the continent’s leading leagues.

Europe’s top five leagues can often be criticised for being predictable but there’s been a wealth of success stories that have caused surprise in 2023-24.

Here are six brilliant stories from the 2023-24 European football season:

Leverkusen shed ‘Neverkusen’ tag

For so long, Bayer Leverkusen have been mocked in German football. Despite the club’s standing as one of the Bundesliga’s top clubs, a bare trophy cabinet and a history of agonising near-misses earned Leverkusen an unwanted tag as football’s famous nearly-men.

‘Neverkusen’ was the name that had followed the Germans like a bad smell but it is a tag that has been shed unbelievably this season. Xabi Alonso’s first full season in charge of Leverkusen has been history-making, unmissable, and might still get better.

Leverkusen are unbeaten across 50 games in all competitions this season, a new record in European football since the advent of UEFA competitions, and wrapped up the first Bundesliga title in their 120-year history with five games to spare.

Bayern Munich’s 11-year dominance of the division has come to an end and Leverkusen have ripped the title from the iron grip of the Bavarians.

Their success has been achieved with a dominant style and a refusal to be beaten, with late goals defining an unbeaten run that has broken the landmark of the legendary Benfica side of the sixties. One more game without defeat will see Leverkusen become the first team in history to complete a Bundesliga campaign without losing, while the club have Europa League (Atalanta) and DFB-Pokal (FC Kaiserslautern) finals to come.

An invincible, incredible, treble is on.

Bologna reach Europe’s elite

Bologna once dominated Italian football. Though few, if any, of their supporters are old enough to remember a team that won six league titles before the outbreak of the Second World War. They added another in 1964 but none since, while their most recent Coppa Italia triumph was a decade later.

In terms of league position, Bologna have not finished in the top seven of Serie A since 1981. Next season, the club will play Champions League football. A 2-0 win at Napoli at the weekend and Roma’s defeat to Atalanta has guaranteed Bologna will finish in Serie A’s top five, enough this season with the extra co-efficient place to earn entry to Europe’s elite.

Third at present, above Juventus on goal difference, it is an astonishing achievement for a team with only the 15th-highest wage bill in the division.

Just two teams have a younger average age than Bologna, who will surely receive interest in Riccardo Calafiori and Joshua Zirkzee, among others, in the summer. Motta, meanwhile, will be on the radar of top clubs as one of the continent’s best-emerging coaches.

So do Girona…

Girona have only played four seasons in Spain’s top tier. The fourth of those has been something special.

Under the guidance of head coach Michel, the Catalan club have secured a place in the Champions League for next season. Girona’s season started with a bang and the underdogs led the league until December, while the Blanquivermells have not dropped out of the top three all season.

As recently as 2006-07 the club were playing regional football in the fourth tier, before back-to-back promotions to the Segunda Division saw Girona reach professional football for the first time in almost 50 years.

After bouncing between the top two leagues in recent seasons, Girona have kicked on to climb the table. Their participation in the Champions League will still need to be ratified given their City Football Group ownership, but there is confidence the Spaniards and Manchester City will be allowed to both participate, as Red Bull-owned Salzburg and Leipzig have done of late.

Olympiacos make first-ever European final

Greek teams are regulars in European competition but, rarely, the nation’s sides have ever troubled the business end of tournaments. Economic issues have contributed to a decline of Greek sides on the continental stage and before this season only one, Panathinaikos in the 1971 European Cup, had reached the decider of a UEFA competition.

Olympiacos have ended that run this season and will face Fiorentina in the Europa Conference League final, beating tournament favourites Aston Villa over two legs in the semi-final.

Jose Luis Mendilibar’s side clinched a 6-2 aggregate triumph in large part thanks to Ayoub El Kaabi, who hit a hat-trick in the first leg win at Villa Park, before scoring both goals in the 2-0 return leg in Athens.

In front of an elated home crowd night at the Karaiskakis Stadium in Piraeus, Olympiacos booked their first major European final. The decider will have a home feel, set to be played at the Agia Sophia Stadium in Athens, home of city rivals AEK.

Olympiacos are one step from history.

Athletic Bilbao end trophy drought

Athletic Bilbao’s long wait for a trophy came to an end in the Copa del Rey this season as the Basque club celebrated silverware for the first time in 40 years.

A penalty shootout win over Mallorca saw Athletic crowned cup winners, ending a run of six straight final losses since last winning the trophy in 1984. Oihan Sancet cancelled out Dani Rodriguez’s opener for Mallorca before a shootout saw Ernesto Valverde’s team prevail.

Only Barcelona (31) have now won the Copa del Rey on more occasions than Athletic (24), though this was their first in four decades. For a team famous for its unique philosophy of only fielding players of Basque origin, it is a staggering achievement to compete at the top end of Spanish football given the resources, and talent pool, available to rival teams.

Stuttgart’s stunning turnaround

Bayer Leverkusen’s title success and unbeaten run have rightfully dominated the headlines in the Bundesliga, but the turnaround of Stuttgart is a narrative that can not be overlooked.

A turbulent recent period has seen Stuttgart twice relegated from the top tier since 2015-16, though this season has witnessed Die Roten return somewhere close to their early-noughties glory days.

Having been in the relegation play-off last season, beating Hamburger SV to remain in the top tier, Stuttgart have had an incredible turnaround to secure Champions League qualification.

Propelled by the prolific form of breakout star Serhou Guirassy and on-loan Brighton forward Deniz Undav, Stuttgart are third in the table and assured of a place in the Champions League next season for the first time since 2009-10. The club have not even computed in Europe for over a decade but next season will rub shoulders with Europe’s biggest clubs again.

A point in their final fixture of the season, at home to Borussia Monchengladbach, will see Stuttgart level the points total needed to WIN the Bundesliga last season.

A crazy turnaround.

Read – Five forwards primed for a move to Europe’s top leagues this summer

See more – Premier League Team of the Week for Matchday 37

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