Five surprise teams aim to finish stunning seasons by securing Champions League spot

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GENEVA (AP) — There could be a surprising team from each of Europe’s “big five” leagues when the new-look Champions League debuts next season.

Aston Villa, Bologna, Brest, Girona and Stuttgart are all, remarkably, on course to qualify for Europe’s elite competition going into the final few rounds of their national league.

Bologna, Stuttgart and Girona have perhaps the best chance of earning a place in the 36-team Champions League lineup when the lucrative tournament switches to a new format next season.

For Spain’s Girona and French club Brest, it would be a particularly remarkable achievement — neither has ever played in any European competition.

But this kind of challenge was not expected from any of the provincial teams, which have had little or no recent success — even if Aston Villa was the European Cup champion in 1982 — and mostly have coaches who are in their first full season.

Three years ago, all five were far from the conversation when some of Europe’s biggest clubs tried to launch the failed Super League project that aimed to leave traditional domestic rivals stranded in the past.

Villa was the only one of them to qualify for a UEFA competition this season after finishing seventh in the Premier League. Coach Unai Emery’s team plays Olympiakos next month in the Europa Conference League semifinals.

Stuttgart’s turnaround is stunning. It was nearly relegated last season before winning a playoff last June to stay in the Bundesliga.

All would bring a fresh look to the Champions League. Stuttgart is the only one of the five to have played in the competition since the European Cup was rebranded 32 years ago, although its last appearance was in 2010.

Though Villa has a previous European Cup title, Bologna’s only appearance ended in a quick exit in the preliminary round of the 1964-65 season. Girona and Brest never came close to qualifying.

The feelgood factor of their rapid rise highlights why fans and critics objected to the Super League, which would have made it much harder for smaller teams to break into Europe’s elite.

UNAI UNITES VILLA

Aston Villa was in trouble when Unai Emery was hired. Steven Gerrard was fired in October 2022 with his team above the relegation zone only on goal difference, heading back toward the second tier it left in 2019. A transformation under Emery has Villa now fourth ahead of Tottenham. Even with wealthy American owners, Villa had to fight off the financial power of Manchester United and Saudi Arabia-owned Newcastle. Key offseason signings were Spanish defender Pau Torres, who worked with Emery at Villarreal, and France midfielder Moussa Diaby from Bayer Leverkusen. Ollie Watkins is arguably the Premier League’s most efficient center forward. His 19 goals is just one behind Erling Haaland and Cole Palmer, and he has a league-leading 12 assists.

MOTTA INSPIRES BOLOGNA

Bologna coach Thiago Motta is no stranger to the Champions League, winning it as a player with Barcelona and then Inter Milan. Motta brings the same intensity to coaching and Bologna has gone far beyond expectations in his second season. Bologna was one of the few teams to take points off runaway Serie A winner Inter Milan and a 3-1 victory Monday at fifth-placed Roma lifted Bologna four points clear of its rival, and eight above sixth-placed Atalanta. The top five qualify for the Champions League. Dutch forward Joshua Zirkzee has been the catalyst with 11 league goals. Attacking midfielder Lewis Ferguson also has been key, though the Scot’s knee injury could sideline him from starting the European campaign in September.

BREST’S BEST

Brest coach Eric Roy, like Villa’s Emery and Stuttgart’s Sebastian Hoeness, took over last season in the middle of a relegation battle. Four wins in May lifted the team to 14th in the 18-team Ligue 1. There was little reason to expect more from a club which never finished higher than eighth in the league. Brest was bankrupt and demoted in 1991 — with David Ginola in the team — and took 13 years just to get back to the second tier, when Franck Ribéry starred. Its last promotion back to Ligue 1 was in 2019, and it hasn’t finished better than 11th since. But this season Roy tightened the Brest defense, which concedes fewer than a goal a game, and got a career year from journeyman midfielder Pierre Lees-Melo, who turns 31 next month. Despite recent back-to-back losses, Brest is in third place — which would guarantee a Champions League berth that could double its annual budget of about 50 million euros ($54 million). Roy’s team has a Breton regional derby Sunday at Rennes.

GIRONA’S GOALS

For a large part of the season, Girona looked like it might actually challenge Real Madrid for the league title. A Champions League spot would still be a major win for the club, which is part-owned by Manchester City’s Abu Dhabi backers and has never played in Europe. The team is in third place, seven points ahead of Atletico Madrid, with a top-four finish good enough for making the Champions League. Getting there would create a test for UEFA’s rules on clubs in shared ownership entering the same competition. Girona was promoted back to La Liga in 2022 and finished 10th last season. But coach Míchel Sánchez has made his group click. Ukraine striker Artem Dovbyk has a league-leading 18 goals. Sávio and Yan Couto each has eight assists. Midfielder Aleix García has completed the second-most passes. Veteran Daley Blind and Barcelona loanee Éric García anchor the defense. Only La Liga leader Real Madrid has scored more goals this season, 70 to Girona’s 67.

STUTTGART HIGH ON HOENESS

Stuttgart’s rise is arguably as surprising as Bayer Leverkusen winning its first Bundesliga title. The team was last in the Bundesliga when coach Sebastian Hoeness took over a year ago and is now third. Guinea striker Serhou Guirassy has excelled with 25 goals in 24 Bundesliga games. Deniz Undav, on loan from Brighton, has 17. Hoeness is the nephew of Uli Hoeness, honorary president of Bayern Munich, which Stuttgart could yet overtake for second. The coach called on his team Thursday to show “we are ready to go to the extreme” on Saturday against unbeaten Leverkusen.

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AP Sports Writers James Robson in Manchester, England; Daniella Matar in MIlan; Joseph Wilson in Barcelona; James Ellingworth in Duesseldorf, Germany contributed to this report

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AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/Soccer

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