Saturday, April 20, 2024

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PSV and Bayer Leverkusen Aim to Join Invincibles List

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When football conversation brings up the topic of the 'Invincibles', most fans, wherever they're based, will understand that this is a reference to the undefeated Premier League campaign of Arsenal in the 2003/04 season. That team earned their own legendary moniker, and place in the history books, by achieving something that is rarely seen at the top levels. 

 



Even if you look back to the start of the English game, only Preston North End have achieved the same accolade as the Gunners. And although the 1888/89 campaign had just twenty-two league games compared to the thirty-eight of 115 years later, the Lilywhites did also go unbeaten through five rounds of the FA Cup as they became the first team to complete 'the double'.



Bearing all that in mind, this year could very well see something unprecedented across Europe, as both PSV Eindhoven and Bayer Leverkusen remain on track to complete their own invincible seasons in the Eredivisie and Bundesliga respectively. The two clubs each have eight league games left to negotiate as they seek their own sporting immortality, and with every passing week the tension will start to build.



Whilst PSV are no strangers to winning titles, they are on course for their first since 2018 and twenty-fifth Eredivisie overall, an invincible feat would be truly remarkable for Leverkusen. Die Schwarzroten (the Black and Reds) have, famously, finished as Bundesliga runners-up on five occasions, the last time being in 2011, and have endured the mocking title of 'Neverkusen' from rival fans. To finally clinch the German league championship would clearly be an incredibly cathartic moment for the club, but to then do it unbeaten... well, there would be a hell of a lot of beer being thrown around!

 

 

What they've achieved so far has obviously not gone unnoticed, with heavy speculation swirling around the manager Xabi Alonso. The Spaniard has quickly demonstrated, in only his second season at Leverkusen, that he could excel as well in the dugout as he did in midfield. His team have not lost once during 2023/24. That's thirty-eight games and counting, in all competitions, as they hunt down a possible treble. Although, having said all this, I'm now clearly going to trigger a downturn!



The betting money is evenly spread across Bayern Munich and Liverpool being his soon-to-be employers, but Alonso could still decide to stay with Leverkusen for one more year, have a crack at the Champions League, and then swan off to Real Madrid after Carlo Ancellotti steps aside at the end of the 2024/25 season. Either way, Alonso and his team surely won't lose momentum at this stage, with the lead that they have over Bayern being ten points. Even Harry Kane breaking goalscoring records isn't enough, and although the reigning champions haven't been as dominant as in recent years, their record is still decent enough to have won previous titles, it's just that Leverkusen are on course for an exceptional achievement.



In the Netherlands, there's another ten point gap between the leaders, PSV, and the nearest challenger in Feyenoord. However, to be fair to the defending champions, they have only lost two league games so far themselves. Rather, once again, it's the exceptional record of the opponents that is denying Feyenoord back to back titles. PSV have won twenty-three out of their twenty-six matches, which is an insanely difficult pace to keep up with. It was only on January 21st that the Rood-witten (Red and whites) dropped their first points in the league, away to Utrecht.



Whereas Leverkusen are still aiming for a Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and Europa League treble, the minds of PSV will now be solely concentrating on their remaining league games. The club were knocked out in the last sixteen of the KNVB Beker, to Feyenoord no less, and they had a decent run in the Champions League which recently ended in another last sixteen exit, rather unluckily, to Borussia Dortmund and a certain Jadon Sancho.



The History of Unbeaten Football Seasons in the Netherlands and Germany

As for the precedent of a team going unbeaten in Eredivisie or Bundesliga, there are some. Twice before they've seen it in the Netherlands- with Ajax being responsible for both- in 1919 and 1995. Back 105 years ago, the league structure in the Netherlands saw five divisions split across the North, South, East and West (A and B), the winners of which went into a play-off round where an additional eight games determined the eventual champions. 



Jump to 1995, and the set-up had long been the more traditional table consisting of eighteen clubs. Ajax had an incredible team, led by Louis van Gaal, that would go on to win their most recent Champions League as well, also without any losses, as an eighteen year old Patrick Kluivert came off the bench to score the winner against AC Milan.



Kluivert was the top scorer in the Eredivisie that year too, surrounded by many greats of the Dutch game. With Frank Rijkaard ending his career on a high in the Champions League final, their fellow teammates included Edwin van der Sar, Michael Reiziger, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Jari Litmanen and Marc Overmars. An incredible array of talent that sadly didn't get held together for as long as it should have done. The current version of Ajax would kill to have just a couple of those legends within their squad but, as it stands, one of their most well-known names now is Jordan Henderson.



As for Germany, they have also had two unbeaten title-winners of their own, but never in the Bundesliga as we know it. The first instance came in 1943 during the Second World War, when the Nazis had established regional Gauligen. The winners of which fed into a knockout competition that was won by first time champions Dresdner SC, thanks to a perfect record of eighteen wins from eighteen. 



The Friedrichstädter (The Friedrichtowners) successfully defended their title in 1944, but with the country descending into collapse during the last throes of the war, the league did not restart again for another four years and their time had passed. In the meantime, the famous Viktoria trophy that was awarded to the league winners, went missing and was not seen again in public until after the fall of the Berlin Wall, alongside rumours that it had been tucked away in East Germany.



And it was in East Germany where the second unbeaten campaign took place, in 1982/83, as Berliner FC Dynamo stormed to the DDR-Oberliga title by twelve points. This was the crowning achievement for a team that was winning a fifth consecutive title, out of a run that would go on to be ten in a row. However, the East German league would dissolve after the conclusion of the 1990/91 season, as a reunified Germany saw the Bundesliga of the West as the standalone league competition and merged the clubs on both sides into the same pyramid system.



Back to the present day and Dresdner SC and Berliner FC Dynamo now ply their trade far removed from the top flight. The former have been stuck in the seventh tier of German football (Landesklasse Sachsen-Ost (VII)) since 2012, whilst Berliner FC Dynamo are in the Regionalliga Nordost (the fourth tier) and are in the midst of a promotion battle to reach 3. Liga. By comparison, Ajax can hardly complain about their current malaise, this season has certainly been a blip and they look destined to finish as low as fifth or sixth in the table (something not seen since 1999) but they will begin to bounce back in 2024/25. The question is whether or not the manager, John van 't Schip, a notable ex player, youth manager and assistant manager at the club, will be afforded the opportunity to lead the fightback?



As for the last couple of months of the 2023/24 campaign, PSV Eindhoven and Bayer Leverkusen supporters had better get prepared for increasing anxiety with each league game that passes without defeat. It's certainly a unique and strange position to be in, one that I was fortunate enough to experience twenty years ago. 



Ultimately, as an Arsenal fan, all I cared about during 2003/04 was the Gunners beating Chelsea to the title, but then once that was secured at White Hart Lane at the end of that April, there was a concern that the team would slip up during the final four fixtures. Thankfully, for all those associated with Arsenal, that never happened, which is a feeling that PSV and Leverkusen hope to be savouring very soon...

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