Tottenham have scored the most goals and conceded the fewest this season, but Leicester have a five-point gap at the top of the Premier League. So which are the best sides to have finished runners-up before?
Manchester United, 1994/95
If Leicester hold off the challenge of Tottenham to secure an unprecedented Premier League title, they will become the first club outside of Manchester and London to win England’s top flight in 21 years. Blackburn Rovers were the original millionaire-funded football club in the mid ’90s, toppling Manchester United to claim the crown in 1995.
Kenny Dalglish’s Rovers owed much of their title to the ‘SAS’ strike partnership, with Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton plundering 49 of the club’s 80 goals between them before Messrs Suarez and Sturridge had even kicked a ball in professional anger. But, despite their best efforts, Blackburn could never quite shake off the challenge of United, two-time reigning Premier League champions. Two points separated the two teams heading into the final day; would Alex Ferguson’s men condemn the Lancashire club to runners-up for the second consecutive season?
Nearly. Liverpool did their bit, beating Blackburn with a last-minute goal from Jamie Redknapp. United required only a victory at West Ham, 13th in the table, and with nothing to play for, to claim the title. But Ludek Miklosko. Ludek bloody Miklosko. The Hammers goalkeeper thwarted Andy Cole, prevented Lee Sharpe and frustrated Mark Hughes at Upton Park. United managed just a 1-1 draw, lifting them to 88 points, and Rovers crawled over the line.
Everyone knows the story: Newcastle led the Premier League by 12 points in January of the 1995/96 Premier League season. Liverpool were in second, and Manchester United were in third. David Ginola, Peter Beardsley, Les Ferdinand and Philippe Albert formed part of the most exciting team to ever grace England’s top flight. Kevin Keegan was their leader, triumphing over the evil that was Ferguson’s United, who were still aching from the drama a year earlier.
Then came the collapse. Newcastle won one and lost three of five games from late February to early April. Level on points with United heading into a game in hand against Liverpool in April, the Magpies had an opportunity to regain the initiative. One of the greatest games in the history of the Premier League unfolded, ending with Keegan slumped over the advertising boards at the sight of a last-minute Stan Collymore winner. United won seven of their last nine league games to win a third league title in four campaigns. The Entertainers had thrown it away, and Keegan didn’t “love it, love it”.
Earlier this week, Dennis Bergkamp said that he should have prevented Manchester United winning the famous Treble in the 1998/99 season. The Arsenal striker’s missed penalty in the FA Cup semi-final replay handed Ferguson’s men the opportunity to progress and complete that leg of their trophy haul, which has not been repeated since in England. The Gunners had an even better chance to stop the United juggernaut a month later.
On May 10, 1999, United and Arsenal were level at the summit of the Premier League. Both had 75 points; both had a goal difference of +42. With two games remaining, Arsenal played first. They visited a Leeds side who sat in fourth place, and were able to finish no higher and no lower. Having conceded just 16 goals and lost just three times all season, Arsene Wenger’s side were confident of securing a result necessary to place pressure on United, who played Blackburn a day later. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored the only goal of the game, with United’s draw with Blackburn 24 hours later handing them a crucial one-point lead at the top. Both teams won their final games, and United were crowned champions.
Whatever your thoughts on Manchester United, their efforts in the 2007/08 season should be praised by all those involved in football. Had Sir Alex Ferguson’s men not won the double of Premier and Champions League that year, Avram Grant would be either a) a Premier League-winning manager, b) a Champions League-winning manager, or c) both. The Israeli would be Real Madrid boss, not head coach of Ghana, in the current day. That is a dark, dark world, where massage parlours are allegedly visited.
Defeat in the penalty shoot-out of the 2008 Champions League final was still to come for Grant’s Chelsea, who had parted ways with Jose Mourinho the previous September. There was still domestic heartache in store, courtesy of United. Just two points separated the Blues from Ferguson’s side by the end of the season – on only four occasions has there been a smaller points gap between champion and runner-up. Chelsea lost fewer league games that season, but drawing ten cost them.
Manchester United, 2011/12
Of the four instances where fewer than two points have separated the champions from the runners-up, Manchester United do not have fond memories. They pipped Arsenal to the Premier League title by one point in the historic 1998/99 season, but the other three times they have been the victims, not the beneficiaries. Arsenal beat them by one point the previous season. Chelsea finished on 86 points to United’s 85 in the 2009/10 season. But the 2011/12 season was the most bitter of pills to swallow.
On only one occasion has goal difference come into play in deciding the destination of the Premier League title. After holding an eight-point advantage in April with six games remaining, United suffered a collapse unbefitting of a Ferguson side. A 1-0 defeat to Wigan allowed City to close the gap to five points. A 4-4 draw with Everton shortened that even further to just three points. Then Vincent Kompany’s big old head put City top. Level on points on the final day, United faced – and beat – Sunderland, while City took on relegation-embattled QPR at home. Losing 2-1 heading into injury time, Edin Dzeko drew the scores level. Then…AGUEROOOOOOOOOOOO.
Suarez or Torres? Rodgers or Rafa? Reserved Gerrard or attacking Gerrard? Cissokho or Dossena?
In all honesty, my answer to each of the above would be the latter. Luis Suarez was incredible in the 2013/14 season, but the Fernando Torres of 2008/09 was simply lovely. Brendan Rodgers was an affable but clearly talented goon when narrowly missing out on the title, but Rafael Benitez was the patently better manager. The more reserved Gerrard was not a patch on the version which pushed Liverpool to another level. And did Aly Cissokho score against Real Madrid and Manchester United in the same week?
But while the 2008/09 version of Liverpool was a carefully crafted machine with an excellent core group of players, the 2013/14 title challengers were bloody brilliant. The Reds scored 101 goals, yet conceded 50. They scored at least four goals in eleven games, and completed league doubles over eight teams. They boasted the top two league goalscorers, as well as the top two assist-makers. Rodgers won the Manager of the Month award twice, while Liverpool provided four of the nine Players of the Month, even sharing one between Suarez and Gerrard. They – or rather the Uruguayan – himself – scored three of the total eight hat-tricks in the Premier League.
All of that, and their captain could not control a simple pass from Mamadou Sakho without losing his footing. For fu…