Winners & losers of the 2023-24 season: From Jude Bellingham's brilliant debut season at Real Madrid to the Harry Kane curse

 


Winners & losers of the 2023-24 season: From Jude Bellingham's brilliant debut season at Real Madrid to the Harry Kane curse

Bayer Leverkusen not only ended Bayern Munich's stranglehold on the Bundesliga - but did so without losing a single game.

Meanwhile, in a season of huge encouragement for the underdogs, Atalanta won their first major European trophy, while Bologna, Brest, Aston Villa and Girona all qualified for the Champions League.

So, who were the big winners and losers of the 2023-24 season.


WINNER: Jude Bellingham

When asked about his debut season at Real Madrid, Jude Bellingham said he "couldn't have dreamed it better". It was no exaggeration.

As well as scoring the winner in two Clasico clashes with Barcelona, Bellingham was named La Liga's best player before lifting the Champions League. Has any Galactico ever had a better first year at the Bernabeu?!


LOSER: Harry Kane

Did Harry Kane smash a mirror over a black cat while walking under a ladder?! How else could one possibly explain the misfortune of joining Bayern Munich before their first trophy-less campaign since 2012?!

It seems that the Kane curse is not only real; it’s more powerful than anyone thought!


WINNER: Xabi Alonso

Pep Guardiola knew Xabi Alonso would make a good coach. But not even he thought his compatriot would make the job look so easy.

Alonso has just turned a club synonymous with failure into double-winners, with Bayer Leverkusen winning the DFB-Pokal after becoming the first team in Germany football history to go through an entire Bundesliga campaign undefeated. Had they also won the Europa League, we'd be talking about arguably the greatest season of all time!

LOSER: Napoli

This time last year, Naples was still celebrating a spectacular Scudetto success. Now, they're coming to terms with one of the worst title defences in Serie A history.

The reason why? A falling-out between Aurelio De Laurentiis and Luciano Spalletti that led to the departure of the history-making coach. With sporting director Cristiano Giuntoli also leaving, the project collapsed.

De Laurentiis went through three coaches during a disastrous 2023-24 campaign that ended with Napoli finishing 10th. Antonio Conte is on his way to sift through the wreckage, but he'll have to rebuild without star striker Victor Osimhen, whose imminent exit represents yet another hammer blow for the fans.


WINNER: Phil Foden

We've long known that Phil Foden is a special talent, but he hasn't always been a guaranteed starter at Manchester City. Remember, the 24-year-old Englishman only came off the bench in last season's Champions League final.

This season, though, Foden emerged as City's talisman and played such a critical role in their hard-fought title triumph that he was the universal pick for Premier League Player of the Season. As Guardiola said, "No one has been so decisive for us as him."

If Gareth Southgate allows Foden to flourish at the Euros, we could be looking at a serious Ballon d'Or contender.


LOSER: Barcelona

It's genuinely sad to see what Barcelona have become. There really was a time when they were more than just a club. It was an iconic and inspirational institution that actually stood for something. Now, though, it's nothing more than a soulless shambles of an organisation, as so painfully underlined by the farcical circumstances surrounding Xavi's dismissal as coach.

The whole affair was embarrassing - and yet utterly unsurprising coming from lever-pulling Joan Laporta, who has mortgaged the club's future in the desperate hope of remaining relevant in the present. It's a bold gamble that seems ever more unlikely to pay off under the current, clueless administration.


WINNER: Jurgen Klopp

Jurgen Klopp's farewell was far from flawless. Liverpool's title challenge faltered down the home stretch, while the dream date with destiny in Dublin never materialised, as the Reds were eliminated in the quarter-finals of the Europa League.

However, Klopp still enjoyed an emotional send-off at Anfield after another season of over-achievement. The midfield was successfully overhauled and rejuvenated, while the club's kids helped win the Carabao Cup.

Not many managers get to bow out on their own terms, and before such an adoring public, but Klopp pulled it off thanks to an intoxicating mix of passion, charisma, talent, hard work and humility. He'll be missed, and not only on Merseyside.


LOSER: Chelsea

More than £1 billion ($1.2bn) spent on transfers over the past two years and yet Chelsea will be playing in the Europa Conference League next season. In that context, Mauricio Pochettino didn't deserve to keep his job - but the amusing thing is that Todd Boehly & Co. decided to sack the Argentine after an encouraging end to an otherwise calamitous campaign.

To then replace him with a Championship-winning manager that most Leicester fans weren't sad to see go in Enzo Maresca only strengthened the belief that the owners at Stamford Bridge have absolutely no idea what they're doing.

Still, while such dubious decision-making must be awfully worrying for Chelsea fans, it's a source of never-ending entertainment for the rest of us.


WINNER: Atalanta

No coach or club deserved a trophy this season more than Gian Piero Gasperini's Atalanta. It was just reward for all of the incredible work done in Bergamo over the past eight years, from the training grounds at the club's academy all the way up to the boardroom.

But the stunning Europa League dismantling of the previously undefeated Bayer Leverkusen wasn't just a victory for Atalanta - it was a triumph over adversity; proof that it is possible for provincial sides to be successful in the era of state-sponsored clubs.

As Gasperini said, "Winning with Atalanta is one of those footballing fairy tales that rarely crop up. It gives scope for meritocracy: there is still room for ideas and doesn’t have to come down to cold, hard money.”


WINNER: The Conference League

Granted, this season's final was a tough watch, maybe one of the worst we've seen at any level in recent years, but the Conference League has proven a surprisingly worthy addition to European football's congested calendar.

It's given great clubs with long-suffering supporters an overdue opportunity to compete for a major honour, and the result has been some truly moving scenes of celebration over the past few years. Indeed, while it was hard not to feel sorry for Fiorentina after losing a second successive final, Olympiacos becoming the first Greek team ever to win a UEFA competition was a joy to behold.

UEFA gets an awful lot wrong, and the decision to expand next season's Champions League is utterly ridiculous, but credit where it's due, the Conference League is a terrific tournament.


LOSER: The Premier League

The best league in the world? The Premier League isn't even the best in Europe right now. Not one English side reached a UEFA final this season, while only Aston Villa made it to the semis.

The performances of the Premier League's biggest clubs were particularly shameful. Liverpool were torn to shreds at Anfield by little Atalanta, Arsenal were beaten by the worst Bayern Munich in more than a decade, while Manchester United finished bottom of their Champions League group.

It, thus, came as no surprise to see Manchester City win the Premier League once again - despite the fact that last season's treble-winners were nowhere near their brilliant best this time around. Pep Guardiola's men have now claimed six of the last seven titles - which makes a mockery of the notion that the Premier League is somehow the most competitive in the world.

Indeed, after years spent ridiculing Europe's top tiers, many English fans are now wondering if they're the ones following a 'Farmer's League'!


WINNER: Real Madrid

Was there ever any doubt that Real Madrid would win the Champions League? Even while being played off the pitch by Borussia Dortmund, you just knew they'd find a way to win. It's what they do.

The scary thing now is that there's no end in sight to Madrid's dominance. With the peerless and impossibly composed Carlo Ancelotti remaining at the helm, they're actually better placed to continue this remarkable run of six victories in 11 seasons than at any previous point in the past decade.

Toni Kroos' craft will definitely be missed by Madrid, who have been rejuvenating their midfield over the past few seasons anyway, while Kylian Mbappe and Endrick are on the way to bolster an attack already containing the two leading contenders for this year's Ballon d'Or, Vinicius Jr and Bellingham.

It's an exciting prospect for Madrid fans - but a terrifying thought for the rest of Europe.


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