Football Features

From unwanted records to pure football: How 14 shock title winners fared in the Champions League

By Squawka News

Published: 16:31, 14 May 2020 | Updated: 10:04, 30 March 2021

One of the biggest complaints about modern football is the predictability of the top leagues.

Although the current title races are close, both the Bundesliga and Serie A have been won by the same team for seven and eight years respectively as Bayern Munich and Juventus dominate.

In France, Paris Saint-Germain have monopolised the title while in Spain (see Real Madrid and Barcelona) and England (see the Big Six) it’s always the same teams challenging, even if the winners sometimes differ.

But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been shocks. Teams from outside the usual set of contenders who have defied all odds to win their league titles. As well as the ecstasy that comes with winning the title, these teams were rewarded for their exploits with a route into the Champions League. Below we’ve taken a look at 14 outsiders who won their domestic titles and how they managed in the Champions League.

Blackburn Rovers (1995)

Bank-rolled by local industrial magnate Jack Walker, Blackburn Rovers went on a spending spree to challenge and beat Manchester United to the Premier League title in 1995. They headed to Europe with their victorious team intact but only managed a win and a draw from their six group games, finishing bottom of Group B behind Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg.

With only title-winners involved, Blackburn’s exit meant the Premier League had no team in the knockout stages of the Champions League, something that has not happened since.

Nantes (1995)

Jean-Claude Suaudeau initially feared that his side would struggle to stay out of the relegation battle in 1994/95. Then they surprised everyone, including themselves, to win the Ligue 1 title that season, 10 points ahead of runners-up Lyon.

A year later they headed into the Champions League and came second in their group behind Greek side Panathinaikos, with two wins and three draws from six games, leaving Porto and Aalborg to founder in third and fourth place, respectively.

In the quarter-finals, Nantes came up against Group B winners Spartak Moscow and won 4-2 on aggregate to set up a daunting semi-final clash with Juventus. Unfortunately, the Old Lady proved too much for the French side, winning 4-3 on aggregate en route to beating Ajax in the final. But not before Nantes went out in style, winning 3-2 in the second leg at home.

Kaiserslautern (1998)

Kaiserslautern have been through the ringer in the past 25 years and were relegated from the Bundesliga in 1996. But they were promoted at the first time of asking and went on to win the Bundesliga title upon their return to the top-flight, finishing two points clear of Bayern Munich and securing passage to the Champions League the following year. They didn’t just make up the numbers in Europe either.

After topping a group that featured former European champions Benfica and a Bobby Robson-managed PSV Eindhoven, they came up against Bayern again in the quarter-finals, losing 6-0 on aggregate. The dream was over but memories remain of how one of the original founding members of the Bundesliga came back from relegation in 1996 to win the German title and take on Europe’s best. These memories are cherished even more given Kaiserslautern’s current position in the third tier of German football.

Genk (1999)

Just 11 years after being founded in a merger between two other Belgian clubs, Genk secured their first top-flight title, beating Club Brugge and Anderlecht, who were forced to finished second and third, respectively.

Unfortunately, victory only granted the champions a place in the qualification rounds and they never made it to the group stages, losing to Maribor of Slovenia in the second round play-off.

Deportivo de La Coruna (2000)

Spanish football looked set for an exciting new future at the turn of the century as the league title went to a team in the far north-western region of Galicia for the very first time in the competition’s history.

The Deportivo side that claimed the championship were a cult team featuring the likes of Roy Makaay, Victor Sanchez and Djalminha, and they became something of a bogey side in Europe following the signing of more memorable players such as Diego Tristan.

After finishing top in both group stages (back when the competition featured two) ahead of Panathinaikos, Hamburg and Juventus and then Galatasaray, Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, conjuring up 10 points against both sets of teams, they finally lost out to Leeds United, 3-2 on aggregate, in the quarter-finals.

Boavista (2001)

Only the second team to beat the big three – Benfica, Porto and Sporting – to a top-flight title in Portuguese football history, Boavista became champions by just a single point in 2001 playing a feisty, fully-committed style of play that ensured their players won every battle they could out on the pitch.

Like Deportivo over the border, they had to contend with a format featuring two group stages, finishing as runners-up in their first just behind Liverpool, and ahead of Borussia Dortmund and Dynamo Kiev, but losing out in the second group as they finished third.

Yet there was no shame in the Portuguese minnows falling at that hurdle. With Manchester United and Bayern Munich taking the top two spots, they still managed to record a win and two draws to keep themselves above Nantes for a respectable finish to their European adventure.

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Rubin Kazan (2008 and again in 2009)

An ambitious attempt to mark Rubin Kazan’s 50th anniversary with a bit of glory actually came off in 2008 when manager Kurban Berdyev was handed a clutch of quality new reinforcements to try and make the most of the occasion. His team won their first seven games and then never looked back, remaining atop of the Russian Premier League table for the remainder of the season as they won their first-ever Russian top-flight title.

Due to the mismatch in fixture calendars, Rubin Kazan entered the Champions League in the 2009/10 season, finishing third in Group F behind Barcelona and eventual winners Inter, but ahead of Dynamo Kiev.

They retained their Russian title and returned to the big stage again in 2010/11, only to end up with the same result: third in a group won by Barcelona but this time behind Copenhagen and above Panathinaikos. On both occasions, they dropped down to the Europa League, reaching the round of 16 in 2010 but failing to win their opening tie in the round of 32 in 2011.

Wolfsburg (2009)

Felix Magath may often be derided for his medieval training methods but in 2009 he led Wolfsburg to the title with a team filled with Bundesliga cult heroes – including the likes of Grafite, Edin Dzeko and Zvjezdan Misimović – and took the Volkswagen-backed club into the Champions League the season after.

They finished third in a group containing Manchester United, CSKA Moscow and Besiktas and went on to face Roy Hodgson’s Fulham in the quarter-finals of the Uefa Cup after beating Villarreal and Rubin Kazan in the round of 32 and round of 16, respectively.

AZ Alkmaar (2009)

Louis van Gaal rebuilt his reputation at AZ following failures with the Dutch national team and Barcelona, and after he masterminded their shock Eredivisie title win in 2009, the former Ajax manager departed to take over at Bayern Munich.

Ronald Koeman succeeded his former coach in the dugout but only lasted until December before Dick Advocaat stepped in to steady the ship post-Champions League. In Europe, they finished bottom of their group without recording a single win against Arsenal, Olympiacos or Standard Liege.

Bursaspor (2010)

The biggest shock in Turkish top-flight history, Bursaspor took the title outside of Istanbul for the first time since 1984 by beating Fenerbahce into second place by a single point.

However, in the Champions League their momentum ran out as the Green Crocodiles were snapped up by a group featuring Manchester United, Valencia and Rangers. They lost all but one of their six games, drawing 1-1 with the Scottish champions at home, and scored twice.

But one small win for Bursaspor fans may be that Sir Alex Ferguson praised the atmosphere at the Bursa Ataturk Stadium, dubbing it louder than previous encounters with Galatasaray, Fenerbahce and Besiktas.

FC Twente (2010)

Following hot on the heels of AZ’s surprising victory in 2009, Steve McClaren won the Dutch league in 2010 and headed into the Champions League with first-time title-winners FC Twente.

They finished third in their group behind Tottenham Hotspur and Inter, but above Werder Bremen, to head into the Europa League. There, they made it through into the quarter-finals beating Rubin Kazan in the round of 32 and Zenit St. Petersburg in the round of 16 before losing out to Villarreal.

Montpellier (2012)

After the Qatari takeover of Paris Saint-Germain, the French league title appeared a foregone conclusion with the burgeoning super club from the capital hoovering up big names for big money. Yet in 2012, the title went to a side that were the antithesis of this approach. Montpellier were neither big nor rich when they somehow snatched the top spot in Ligue 1, spearheaded by Olivier Giroud.

A 2-1 win over Auxerre on the final day of season saw them secure their victory by three points, but after a summer of sales the club finished bottom of their Champions League group with only two points after failing to prosper against Arsenal, Schalke and Olympiacos; to rub salt in the wound, the former of those two teams even boasted Giroud among their ranks.

Leicester City (2016)

The 2015/16 campaign is arguably the most historic season in Premier League history as Leicester, who were among the favourites to be relegated having fought for safety the previous season, went all the way to win the title, finishing an impressive 10 points clear of second-placed Arsenal.

Their reward was a place in Pot 1 for the 2016/17 Champions League group stage and they were handed a favourable group that they ultimately topped, ahead of Porto, Copenhagen and Club Brugge with 13 points. Sevilla were next to fall despite winning 2-1 in the first leg (a result that saw Claudio Ranieri sacked and replaced by Craig Shakespeare); Leicester won the second game 2-0 and Shakespeare became one of only four English managers to take charge of a Champions League knockout game, the others being Sir Bobby Robson, Harry Redknapp and Frank Lampard.

But their journey would be ended in the quarter-finals by another Spanish team, unable to cut through a stubborn Atletico Madrid defence, losing 2-1 on aggregate in the quarter-finals. After the game, Atletico Madrid manager Diego Simeone praised Leicester for their efforts.

“I feel emotion, pride and hope after such a tough game against a team which gave us so much pleasure to compete against, a team that did not throw in the towel and kept us at arms’ length,” he said.

“After a game like that it’s easy to forget we are in the semi-finals. It was the night of pure football we had envisaged, with a marvellous atmosphere against a team that fought until the end. It was a passionate game with chances for both sides, and these are the games that people love to see.”

PAOK (2019)

Since 1997, Olympiacos have dominated the Greek Super League, winning the title 19 times in 23 seasons. But in 2018/19, Greek football was all about another team: PAOK.

Having finished runners-up to AEK the season before, PAOK went one step further to win the Greek Super League just their third title, finishing five points clear of Olympiacos. Even more remarkably, they did so unbeaten in their 30 games, becoming just the second Greek side to pull off an ‘Invincibles’ campaign after Panathinaikos in 1963/64.

But given Greece’s low standings in Uefa’s standings, PAOK’s 2019/20 Champions League campaign started in the third-qualifying round, where they were drawn against Eredivisie winners and 2018/19 semi-finalists Ajax. It was a close tie, with Ajax running out 5-4 winners on aggregate, despite PAOK leading the tie in both legs.

PAOK dropped down to the final round of qualifying for the Europa League group stage but lost out to Slovan Bratislava on away goals after a 3-3 draw.