European Football's 5 Most Surprising Sides This Season

Tony MabertContributor IMay 29, 2012

European Football's 5 Most Surprising Sides This Season

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    This season, more than any in recent years, has brought with it a host of unexpected occurrences. 

    Usually the top sides in each of Europe's major leagues are drawn from a pretty select pool.

    However, the last campaign has delivered more than its fair share of shocks.

    Chelsea winning the Champions League or Southampton becoming the second team in as many years to return to the Premier League via back-to-back promotions would, in other circumstances, have been the biggest surprise of the season.

    However, they were not. Here are the five that were.

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Montpellier

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    A year ago, everyone was being told how PSG's takeover by an investment group working for the Qatari royal family was going to dominate Europe. 

    That may well come to pass, but the capital city club have had their well-funded rise stalled by minnows Montpellier, who against all the odds, won the Ligue 1 title despite only being back in the top flight for their third season after a five-year absence.

    Main striker Olivier Giroud ended as joint-top scorer in Ligue 1, and Montpellier president Louis Nicollin sported an orange-and-blue Mohawk by way of celebration.

    It's fair to say that's not the sort of thing that happens to a club used to winning championships.

Newcastle United

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    Last summer, finding pundits and fans who were predicting a torrid season for the Magpies would not have combated much in the way of scepticism.

    With the central midfield partnership of Kevin Nolan and Joey Barton shipped out, plus hometown boy and star centre-forward Andy Carroll having left the previous January, things looked bleak on Tyneside.

    But this season, a raft of cut-price or free signings such as Yohan Cabaye and Demba Ba almost took Newcastle to a top-four place and earned boss Alan Pardew the Manager of the Year award.

    The whole of England waits to see what the club, who now also have the prolific yet unpredictable striker Papiss Cisse in their ranks, will do next season.

Levante

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    Very much Valencia's second team, Levante are more used to either combating or dealing with relegation than having to negotiate the upper echelons of the Spanish league.

    But that all changed last September when, after opening their latest La Liga campaign with two away draws, Levante beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the Estadi Ciutat de Valencia.

    Arouna Kone scored the first of his 15 league goals that season to win the game against the eventual champions, while veteran defender Sergio Ballesteros stunned the watching world by out-sprinting Cristiano Ronaldo at one point.

    Levante's place at the top of the Spanish league for the first time in their history could not last, but their strong start to the season helped them to a sixth-place finish that earns them a playoff spot for next season's Europa League.

Borussia Moenchengladbach

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    Lucien Favre's team only avoided relegation from the Bundesliga at the end of 2010-11 after winning a playoff.

    The way they came out of the blocks the following year stunned the whole of Germany. After beating Bayern Munich in their first game of the season, Gladbach’s counter-attacking style took the league by storm.

    They beat Bayern again after Christmas and for a long time were genuine title contenders, but a fourth-place finish—and with it a Champions League playoff place—is a fine reward for a club with real European pedigree.

    They may have lost star man Marco Reus to Borussia Dortmund, but the acquisition of FC Basel playmaker Granit Xhaka could prove to be a masterstroke.

APOEL Nicosia

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    Even after the events, talking of Cypriot club APOEL Nicosia seems fanciful, even if the history books say otherwise.

    The Islanders started their Champions League campaign in July 2011 against Albanian side Skenderbeu Korce in the qualifiers and ended at the Santiago Bernabeu in the last eight the following April—this illustrates what a phenomenal season they had.

    En route to getting eliminated by nine-time European champions Real Madrid, APOEL topped a group that included Porto, Zenit St Petersburg and Shakhtar Donetsk as well as beating Lyon in the first knockout round.

    Their European exploits probably contributed to them finishing second in their own domestic league, but APOEL have made their mark in Europe.