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There are several reasons why many believe we could see some surprise title winners in Europe’s major leagues this season.
Liverpool and Manchester City were the pre-season favorites to win the Premier League, but Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea are now being spoken of as contenders. In Italy, Juventus look more vulnerable than they have for years, even if the presence of Cristiano Ronaldo upfront means the championship is still theirs to lose.
Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain will still probably win the Bundesliga and Ligue 1 respectively, but neither has had everything their own way so far this term. In Spain, meanwhile, a team other than Real Madrid or Barcelona is top of La Liga after 11 rounds of games – a rare occurrence indeed.
The truncated nature of pre-season, the hectic fixture schedule and the absence of supporters have all played their part in producing some freak results across the continent. In Spain, these factors have combined with specific problems experienced by Real Madrid and Barcelona to open up the title race. Madrid and Barca are arguably weaker this season than they have been for years, and that has led to talk of another club potentially finishing on top of the pile in 2020/21.
After losing 2-1 to Alaves at the weekend, Madrid is no longer the bookmakers’ favorites. They have slipped to +300 with DraftKings Sportsbook, behind Barcelona (+275) and Atletico (+125), with Real Sociedad (+1100) and Sevilla (+2500) further back. Ahead of another big weekend in La Liga, we have taken a look at the five non-Madrid or Barcelona clubs to win the title.
Diego Simeone has played down similarities between his current Atletico team and the iteration that won the league in 2014, but the Argentinian will know his side are in with a chance of triumphing again this term.
Atletico’s victory in 2013/14 was built on a solid defense. They conceded just 26 goals in their 38 matches that campaign and kept a league-high 20 clean sheets. Atletico was aggressive, intense, and difficult to play against, with Simeone roaring his charges on from the touchline. They had an excellent spine of Thibaut Courtois, Diego Godin, Gabi, and Diego Costa, while David Villa, Arda Turan, and Koke added spark in the final third.
Atletico had a slight wobble at the end of the season, losing 2-0 to Levante and drawing 1-1 with Malaga in May. That set up a dramatic final-day encounter with Barcelona, who knew that a win at the Camp Nou would see them crowned champions. Alexis Sanchez gave Barca the lead, but Godin’s headed equalizer secured the title for Atletico.
Valencia’s success in 2004 was their second in three years, having also finished at the summit of the standings two seasons prior. Rafael Benitez was the manager on both occasions, with his achievements at Mestalla earning him a move to Liverpool following his side’s second title.
Valencia was an excellent side in this period; they had reached back-to-back Champions League finals in 2000 and 2001, losing first to Real Madrid and then to Bayern Munich. In 2003/04, they won the UEFA Cup as well as the league.
Like Atletico in 2014, Valencia’s triumph 10 years earlier was in part built on a solid backline. But as well as having the best defensive record in the division, los Che scored more goals than any other team but fourth-placed Real Madrid. This was a well-balanced outfit, with Roberto Ayala, David Albelda, Santiago Canizares, Mista, and Vicente all crucial to their title win.
Valencia was not the only non-Barcelona or Real Madrid team to win the title in the early 2000s. Indeed, Deportivo La Coruna was the first side to take home the trophy in the 21st century thanks to a brilliant campaign under the astute management of Javier Irureta.
Deportivo had finished sixth the year before, but everything came together for them in 1999/00. Irureta’s side lost 11 games that campaign, but their ability to avoid drawing too many matches got them over the line; Depor tied just six of their 38 fixtures and won a league-high 21.
Roy Makaay was the star of the show that season, scoring 22 goals in La Liga to fire Los Branquiazuis to glory. This remains Deportivo’s only title triumph, with the club currently playing their soccer in the third division.
For four seasons in a row between 1980 and 1984, neither Barcelona nor Real Madrid won the title – the only time that has happened since the 1940s. Athletic Bilbao were the victors in both 1983 and 1984, with the latter their eighth ever success. That puts them fourth in the all-time table, behind the big two and Atletico Madrid.
Athletic finished a point clear of Real Madrid to win the title in 1983. The two clubs finished level on points the following season, but Athletic scooped the prize by virtue of a better head-to-head record.
Surprisingly, no Athletic player scored more than nine goals that term, but the Basque outfit still managed to get over the line in the first place.
Real Sociedad currently leads the way in La Liga after taking 24 points from the first 33 available this term. Should they maintain this form over the next couple of months, the club’s fans may start dreaming of a repeat of the early 1980s.
La Real won back-to-back titles back then, finishing atop the table in 1981 and 1982 after finishing second in 1980. This was undoubtedly the most successful period in the Basque club’s history, although both of their title victories were by slender margins – La Real won it thanks to a better head-to-head record than Real Madrid in 1981, before finishing two points clear of Barcelona the following year. Real Sociedad supporters would settle for the same this time around.
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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