Bayer Leverkusen, Leicester City and the most surprising league winners this century in Europe’s big five

Bayer Leverkusen may have started the season with a 0.9% chance to win the Bundesliga, according to Opta, but Xabi Alonso’s side are now champions Leverkusen officially won their first Bundesliga title this weekend to snap Bayern Munich’s 11-year winning streak after beating Werder Bremen 5-0.

The team’s near-perfection makes them European soccer’s latest Cinderella story, an example of a team that somehow managed to disrupt the seemingly inevitable order of events in the continent’s top five leagues. Leverkusen’s impressive run, though, also serves as a reminder that they are far from the first to overcome the odds in recent years with a campaign that’s hard to forget.

Here’s a look back at some of the most surprising champions in Europe’s top five leagues this century.

Honorable mentions: Wolfsburg’s Bundesliga win in the 2008-09 season and Lille’s victory in Ligue 1 during the 2020-21 season.

5. Atletico Madrid, 2013-14 season

By the time the 2013-14 season began, La Liga was stuck in a nine-year holding pattern in which either Real Madrid or Barcelona would win the title and all signs pointed to one of them doing it again. Yet, it was Atletico Madrid who went toe-to-toe with Barcelona over the course of the season and were crowned champions for the first time since the 1995-96 campaign.

Diego Costa had a revelatory season with 27 goals while Koke was amongst the league’s top assisters with 14, but it was also a statement-making campaign for Diego Simeone. He was hired in 2011 to lead an aspirational team and completed the vision with victory in La Liga, going from a manager on the rise to cementing his status as one of the best of his era. Atleti also won the title in dramatic fashion that season — they went to the Camp Nou on the final day needing a draw, but Barcelona needed a win to take home the title. Alexis Sanchez gave Barcelona the lead but Diego Godin’s second half equalizer was enough to seal the deal.

4. Bayer Leverkusen, 2023-24 season

Like the Atleti team of a decade ago, the Bundesliga’s champions-to-be are a team that many felt was on the rise even before the season started. Alonso joined the team in October 2022 with the aim of saving them from relegation and led them to a comfortable sixth place finish plus a semifinal berth in last season’s Europa League. They were poised for big things this season, but beating Bayern to the title with weeks to spare seemed awfully unlikely.

It was not just that they had less than a 1% chance to win the whole thing — they were outranked by Bayern, RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund as favorites for the title at the start of the season. Everything clicked with this Leverkusen team, though, to the point that they could win at least a double, if not the treble, by the end of the season. Victor Boniface has 11 goals while Alejandro Grimaldo leads the Bundesliga with 11 assists, and goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky is atop the clean sheet standings with 13. Star attacker Florian Wirtz had a hat trick in the clinching win on Sunday.

Things are going so well that Alonso was a frontrunner for several high-profile openings in the summer, including one at his former club Liverpool, but he’s planning a follow-up act by sticking around at Leverkusen.

3. Stuttgart, 2006-07 season

It might be easy to write off a team that started their season with just two wins in their first five and a 3-0 loss to kick off the campaign, but a young Stuttgart team rebounded in fine form to win the Bundesliga in the 2006-07 season. It was the first time Stuttgart won the title since the 1991-92 campaign, much of it on the back of a breakout season from 21-year-old Mario Gomez. He scored 14 goals in the Bundesliga that season, later going on to become the league’s 11th-highest goalscorer.

2. Montpellier, 2011-12 season

By Jonathan Johnson

Qatar’s first year of Paris Saint-Germain ownership was expected to result in immediate Ligue 1 success but nobody considered outsiders Montpellier who produced a superb season to win their only French top-flight crown back in 2012. Led by Rene Girard and inspired by the likes of Olivier Giroud, Younes Belhanda and Vitorino Hilton, La Paillade pipped Carlo Ancelotti’s Parisiens to the Championnat crown by three points which prompted the signings of Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Thiago Silva ahead of the following season. If Lille OSC and AS Monaco were unexpected since Qatar’s arrival in France, then Montpellier were thoroughly improbable.

1. Leicester City, 2015-16 season

Few will forget Leicester City’s journey from Premier League survival as a newly promoted side in the 2014-15 season to champions of England just one year later, a campaign in which they famously had 5000-to-1 odds to win the whole thing.

If each of the teams listed here is an example of things turning their way at exactly the right time, the 2015-16 Leicester team is the dictionary definition of it. Leicester went unbeaten in their first six games and assumed top spot fairly early on that season, never letting go as everyone waited for their luck to run out at some point. They ended up losing just three times that season, and Jamie Vardy — once a non-league footballer — went on to score 24 goals, catapulting himself into the England picture as a result.

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