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Bayer Leverkusen fumble greatest European football season of all time

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FROM THE AVIVA STADIUM – What is the greatest season in European footballing history?

Well, Manchester United’s 1999/00 treble triumph is in with a shout, as are Manchester City’s treble winners of 2022/23.

Barcelona’s 2010/11 campaign wasn’t half bad either, with Lionel Messi, Xavi Hernandez (before he was just an extraordinarily angry man on the touchline) and Andres Iniesta running the show, and putting a pretty damn good Manchester United side to the sword at Wembley Stadium in an all-time great UEFA Champions League final.

If we’re to go way back in time, AC Milan’s 1993/94 season in which they won the Serie A (when it was by far the best league in the world) and the UEFA Champions League by thumping Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona 4-0 in the final also deserves a tip of the cap. As does Real Madrid’s 1957/58 side who won the double on pitches closer to slurry fields than what we see modern day players have the pleasure of kicking a ball about on.

And if we’re to take into account those wonderful ‘how the hell did they do that?’ seasons, Leicester City’s billlion-to-one (basically) Premier League triumph back in 2015/16 is right up there too.

But there’s one thing every single one teams – no matter how astounding and full of legendary superstars of the game they were – weren’t able to achieve: an unbeaten season across every single competition. It’s one thing which has perhaps always held us back from definitively tagging a specific campaign as the ‘greatest European football season of all time’.

In 2023/24, Bayer Leverkusen came as close to any side has to doing it.

Their Europa League final defeat to Atalanta ultimately put an end to their quest to complete an unheard of unbeaten treble winning campaign, with a 52nd game of the season weighing a little too heavy on Leverkusen’s tired legs.

Xabi Alonso’s side did look absolutely knackered at the Aviva Stadium. Their ability to play through the press alluded them, as did their ability to squeeze the life out of teams by sheer volume of chance creation – they mustered up just three shots on goal in the first 45 minutes in Dublin as opposed to their usual 30.

However, instead of sitting here and badgering Leverkusen for falling at the second-to-last hurdle in their attempt to a full season unbeaten in all competitions, we’re instead going to praise them for coming this close to it.

Because, in truth, they weren’t even supposed to get this far.

In fact, they weren’t supposed to win anything at all in 2023/24.

In Germany, Bayern Munich signed Harry Kane and were supposed to run the table and comfortably win a domestic double.

Instead, shockingly, it was Leverkusen who brushed aside all competition with relative ease, achieving an unbeaten league season which not even the great Bayern Munich sides of yesteryear with Pep Guardiola in the dugout and Robert Lewandowski on the pitch could do.

So how did they come so close to completing of the greatest European football season ever?

Well, in short: Xabi Alonso.

The former midfielder, surprisingly given the job after one fairly ordinary spell in charge of Real Sociedad B while the club were on the edges of the Bundesliga relegation zone, has performed a genuine footballing miracle at the Bay Arena.

Alonso has cultivated a team unity and winning mentality that the club has simply never had before. And that sounds harsh but Leverkusen, despite being one of the most recognisable clubs in Germany, had won just two cup competitions in their history and had never won the Bundesliga prior to this season – finishing second a record five times without getting over the line.

That is some bonafide, unadulterated, loser mentality if we ever did see it.

Armed with a 3-4-3 tactical set-up so good that Leverkusen’s wing-backs Jeremie Frimpong and Alex Grimaldo have tallied up a 47 goal contributions in all competitions, Alonso has gotten rid of this loser mentality and replaced it with Sir Alex Ferguson’s Man Utd-levels of willingness to win.

That change was evident throughout their Bundesliga campaign in which they won 28 and drew six of their 34 games, particularly when they continued to hold onto their unbeaten league record after winning the title – the first in their history remember.

The final six games of the BuLi season pretty much encapsulated everything good about Alonso’s Leverkusen. From thumping 5-1 and 5-0 wins over Werder Bremen and Eintracht Frankfurt respectively to their 96th and 97th minute equalisers against Borussia Dortmund and VfB Stuttgart, Leverkusen showed an ability to blow teams away with their five-pronged attacking set-up, and dig out results when they perhaps weren’t at their best.

It’s the latter which has made Leverkusen genuinely damn near impossible to beat, and it was the latter which they tried to rely upon in the Europa League final at the Aviva Stadium.

This time, however, it didn’t quite happen.

Ademola Lookman

The third goal / James Baylis – AMA/GettyImages

Cold-cocked in the opening 45 minutes by Atalanta’s sharp pressing and even sharper finishing in the final third, Leverkusen were 2-0 by the end of the first half thanks to a fantastic brace from ex-Everton outcast Ademola Lookman.

That deficit would ultimately prove to be a bridge too far for Alonso’s spirited Leverkusen side, with Atalanta and Lookman scoring again in the 75th minute to claim their first ever European trophy – a remarkable achievement in itself by a club from the tiny town of Bergamo.

That deficit would ultimately prove to be the end of Leverkusen’s hopes of winning a first European trophy in 34 years.

That deficit would ultimately prove to be the end Leverkusen’s class of 2023/24’s quest to claim the ‘greatest European football season of all time’ tag for themselves.

However, while a painful defeat, it ultimately shouldn’t put a dampener on what Leverkusen fans will perhaps forever view as their club’s greatest season of all time.

Bayer Leverkusen win first-ever German Bundesliga title

A brilliant campaign for Leverkusen / Anadolu/GettyImages

Because, after all, the thumping 3-0 win over Bayern Munich in February still exists, the multitude of games saved by Josip Stanisic goals still exist, as does the storming of the pitch after Florian Wirtz’s hat-trick goal in the title-clinching win over Bremen.

Those moments and this season will live long in the memories of Leverkusen fans – even if the rest of Europe won’t remember Leverkusen’s 2023/24 campaign as the ‘greatest European football season of all time’.

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