The current Premier League title race is one of the closest title races we have ever seen in English, or for that matter, European football history. Manchester City and Manchester United head into the final day of the season with 86 points each, but City boast a +63 goal difference whereas their illustrious rivals have mustered only a +55 goal difference. The Citizens have also scored 90 goals to United’s 88 and if both the sides win on the final match-day, United would need to score in double figures at Sunderland to even stand a chance of claiming a record 20thleague title.
This is the closest title race the league has seen in four years, when Chelsea and Manchester United went into the final day of the 2007-08 season with 84 points each, but United had a near 20+ advantage in the goal difference. Chelsea needed United to falter to win the title, but United beat Wigan 2-0 and Chelsea labored to 1-1 draw against Bolton and the Red Devils claimed their 17th league crown.
The managers involved in these neck to neck finishes, often harp on about the importance of a good goal difference, and rightly so. United will, in all probability, lose the title due to an inferior goal difference, but they aren’t the first side to do so and certainly won’t be the last. In other leagues and in the past, goal difference wasn’t much of a factor in deciding the destination of the title. Play offs, head-to-head record, and in cases when the goal difference was similar, the side which had scored the superior number of goals would claim the title.
Some of the tightest title races ever, not in any particular order, are:
1. Manchester City vs Manchester United 1967-68
Granted this race is not as famous as some of the other races mentioned below, but what better way to start off than with a sense of Déjà vu. Manchester United led the table with 56 points to City’s 55 on the final day of the season. United faced Sunderland (ironically enough) at Old Trafford and City needed them to lose or draw to win the league. As luck would have it, the Sky Blues won their match and Sunderland beat United 2-1 at Old Trafford which meant that City finished on 58 points and United on 56 and, as a result, City won their first title since 1937.
Quite possibly the most famous and historic title race ever, the destination of the title wasn’t decided till literally the last second. Liverpool faced Arsenal on the final day at fortress Anfield with a superior goal difference and the teams level on points. Arsenal needed to win by two clear goals so that they could take the title by via the superior number of goals scored, but they hadn’t won at Anfield in a very long time.
Arsenal led 1-0 until the 90th minute and the tension in the stadium was palpable. Liverpool were recoiling and Arsenal were looking to break. As the Gunners broke away, in the words of the famous commentator Brian Moore, “Arsenal come streaming forward now in surely what will be their last attack. A good ball by Dixon, finding Smith, for Thomas, charging through the midfield. Thomas, it’s up for grabs now!” The Merseysiders were stunned and Arsenal celebrated a famous victory.
In England, the title has been decided by goal average (dividing goals scored by goals conceded) in 1923-24, 1949-59, 1952-53, and 1964-65. In 1923-24, Cardiff City lost out to Huddersfield Town despite having scored more goals.
3. Real Madrid vs Barcelona 2006-07
Defending champions FC Barcelona led the league for much of the season while arch rivals Real Madrid struggled to remain in the Champions League spots. Barca’s form started dipping in January and Madrid clawed their way back to finally take the lead for the first time all season in mid-March. They remained in the lead till the very end and both the sides would finish on 76 points.
The Catalans had a superior goal difference of +45 to Real’s +26, but in Spain it is decided by head-to-head record. The Los Blancos clinched the title as they had a superior head-to-head record having beaten Barca 2-0 in Madrid and drew 3-3 in Catalonia.
4. AZ Alkmaar vs PSV Eindhoven vs Ajax Amsterdam (2006-07)
In a sensational season of Dutch football, the three teams were tied on 72 points each heading into the final day of the season. AZ Alkmaar boasted a superior goal difference of +53 to Ajax’s and PSV’s +47 and +46 respectively. AZ proceeded to blow up their advantage and were upset 3-2 by relegation contenders Excelsior Rotterdam. Ajax managed to beat Willem II 2-0 and now had plus +49 goal difference.
But PSV had other plans, going on to beat Vitesse 5-1 and improving their goal difference to +50 to steal the title right under Ajax’s noses. Football experts widely believe that it was one of the greatest Dutch seasons of all time, with the excitement levels reaching near hysteria.
5. Rosenborg vs Valerenga 2004 Norwegian Premier League (Tippeligaen)
A less famous story due to the league in which the teams played, Rosenborg and Valerenga had 45 points going into the final game of the season and +15 goal difference each, but Rosenborg had scored 48 goals to Valerenga’s 37. Valerenga won their final game 3-0 and the match got over 6 minutes before Rosenborg’s match. Rosenborg led Lyn Oslo 4-1 at home and had to endure the most nerve wrecking six minutes ever in Norwegian football history. They kept their cool and retained the title in the most dramatic finish in history.
Other close calls:
In the 1963-64 Serie A, Bologna and Inter Milan finished level on points and Bologna beat Inter 2-0 in the play-off match to win their 7th and last Serie A title. Italy is the only one of the five major European leagues which used tie-breakers to decide the destination of the title.
In the 1909-10 season, Pro Vercelli and Inter Milan finished on level points. The play-off was supposed to be played in Vercelli due to their better goal difference, but on the date of the match most of the Vercelli players were committed to a military tournament and their plea to change the date was rejected by Inter and the federation. In protest Vercelli played their fourth string team (youth players of 10-15 years of age) and were predictably hammered 10-3.