Premier League: 10 greatest title races of all-time

Can a Premier League season match the drama of the 2011-12 season?
Can a Premier League season match the drama of the 2011-12 season?
Neeraj Manivannan

The English Premier League, for years, has been the most widely followed football league in the world. Since its inception in 1992, the Premier League has provided its fans with top quality football. Some of the best players from around the world have starred in England to make it the perhaps most enjoyable league in world football.

Over the last 28 years, despite Manchester United's domination, the Premier League has had 6 different winners, with numerous other challengers battling it out for the crown. The level of competition has meant that we've seen some absolutely riveting title races that have only been settled on the final day of the season.

These races have seen the top spots see-saw between title contenders, and it has been next to impossible to pick a winner in the middle of the season. These closely fought seasons have kept fans glued to their TV sets, and have ensured that the Premier League is the most-watched football league in the world.

In this article, we take a look at the 10 most thrilling title races since the Premier League's inception in 1992:

#10 1997-98: Arsenal vs Manchester United

Arsene Wenger won the Premier League in his first season in charge of Arsenal
Arsene Wenger won the Premier League in his first season in charge of Arsenal

In just his first season in charge of Arsenal, Arsene Wenger guided his team to their maiden Premier League title, and stopped Manchester United from claiming a hat-trick of titles.

A title charge seemed unlikely at Christmas for Arsenal, as Manchester United were sitting pretty at the top of the table, while Wenger’s men languished at sixth and seemed out of contention. However, an astounding run of 45 points out of 51 post-Christmas, including 10 straight wins, ensured that the Gunners would stop Ferguson’s men. Arsenal wrapped up the title with two games to go.

Two losses in the final two games meant that the final gap between the two title rivals was brought down to just one point, but Wenger’s men took the league by storm. Arsene Wenger began to build a team that would go on to pose a stern challenge to Ferguson’s men over the next decade.

#9 2009-10: Chelsea vs Manchester United

Carlo Ancelotti's men smashed goal scoring records in a remarkable title win
Carlo Ancelotti's men smashed goal scoring records in a remarkable title win

Manchester United came into this season having won the last 3 Premier League titles. It ended up being another straight fight between Chelsea and Manchester United that went to the final day of the season.

As it is in closely contested seasons, the games between the two title contenders were expected to swing the balance of the title, and it was Chelsea who came out on top on both occasions. Arsenal was also in the title race for the vast majority of the campaign, but once again fell away in the final two months.

After 31 games, United sat on top, and just 2 points separated them from the two London clubs. Arsenal ended the season in terrible form, with just 8 points from 7 games, and that ensured they would finish well behind the remaining two challengers in third.

The top two sides faced each other at Stamford Bridge after 11 games, with Chelsea ahead by just 1 point. A goal by skipper John Terry enabled the Blues to take an early lead in the title race, which would remain a tight affair in a see-saw battle. The two sides would come face to face again at Old Trafford in a potential title decider, with United a point ahead this time. A professional 2-1 win at the home of their rivals saw Chelsea move 2 points ahead in the race.

Manchester United drew their following game against the Blackburn Rovers, allowing the Blues to stretch the gap to 4 points with just 4 games left to play. Chelsea lost their next game to city rivals Spurs, while a last minute winner for United over their city rivals Manchester City meant that the gap was back down to one point.

Chelsea had no margin for error. United won their final three games, but Chelsea were faultless too and clinched the title by just one point on the final day of the season. The Blues scored 17 unanswered goals in their final games, and put 8 past a hapless Wigan Athletic to clinch the title in style at home. At the same time, they became the first team to cross the 100 goal mark in a single Premier League season, and they ended up with 103 goals.

#8 2008-09: Manchester United vs Liverpool

Manchester United saw off their bitter rivals Liverpool to draw level with them on 18 league titles
Manchester United saw off their bitter rivals Liverpool to draw level with them on 18 league titles

This season remains the only Premier League season to date where arch-rivals Manchester United and Liverpool have been involved in a title race. Liverpool were quick off the blocks, while United had a patchy start to the season. The two sides faced each other early in the season at Anfield, and the Merseysiders ran out 2-1 winners.

Liverpool led the title race at Christmas and at New Year, as their rivals found themselves 7 points behind, albeit with 2 games in hand. However, both the teams began the new year in contrasting fashion. United reeled off 9 wins in a row, while Liverpool hit a rut and began the new year with 4 draws and a loss in their first 7 games.

Liverpool began to slip away and their manager Rafael Benitez began to feel the pressure. A war of words sparked off between the two managers, who had a go at each other in the press conferences. Liverpool travelled to Old Trafford knowing that nothing but a win would keep them in the title race, and they came away with a famous 4-1 away win.

When United lost their next game against Fulham, it looked like the title race might be back on. Heading into April, United led Liverpool by 2 points with 2 games in hand, but the pressure was well and truly on when they faced Aston Villa at home.

United were trailing 2-1 in the second half before Cristiano Ronaldo pulled United back level with 10 minutes to play. Substitute Federico Macheda, who came on for his first-team debut, scored a crazy injury-time winner to spare United's blushes and lead them to a vital win. Macheda repeated the feat in the next game, and scored another second-half winner to lead United to another crucial win.

Liverpool, on the other hand, were involved in a breathtaking 4-4 draw at home against Arsenal, that saw the Reds go level on points with United, but having played two games more. A few days later, United trailed 2-0 against Tottenham, but produced an incredible second-half comeback where they scored five goals to win 5-2. The Red Devils moved 3 points ahead, having played a game less.

These fabulous comebacks highlighted the spirit and hunger in the United dressing room as they clinched the title by 4 points, despite Liverpool’s best efforts at the back end of the season. 10 wins in Liverpool's last 11 games weren’t enough as their patchy mid-season form of 7 draws in 10 games came back to haunt them.

Liverpool lost the title despite beating their title rivals both times and having lost fewer games than United. Manchester United completed a hat-trick of titles by winning their 18th league title, and drew level with their arch-rivals, none other than Liverpool.

#7 2018-19: Manchester City vs Liverpool

Pep Guardiola led Manchester City to a second successive Premier League title
Pep Guardiola led Manchester City to a second successive Premier League title

This was a season in which the two title contenders left all their rivals in their wake, with third place Chelsea finishing 25 points behind the Premier League runners-up. Manchester City and Liverpool faced off in the eighth game of the season, level on points. The game ended all square, with Manchester City’s Riyad Mahrez missing a late penalty, a moment that could have proved decisive in deciding the title.

Liverpool ended December unbeaten in the league, with just 3 draws, whereas Manchester City stuttered in December, suffering 3 defeats to hand Liverpool a 7 point lead. The two title rivals faced off at the Etihad Stadium, and it felt like anything but a Manchester City win would hand Liverpool the title with nearly half the season to go. Manchester City beat Liverpool 2-1, with the Reds being denied a goal by millimetres thanks to a sensational goal-line clearance by John Stones.

The loss to Manchester City would end up being Liverpool’s only loss of the season, but a run of 4 draws in 6 games proved costly in the end, as it handed a one-point lead to the Citizens with nine games to play. Despite Liverpool going on a 9-game winning run, Manchester City nicked the title by going on a 14-game winning run themselves.

In the penultimate game of the season, Manchester City needed a stunning goal from talismanic captain Vincent Kompany to secure a nervy 1-0 win. A point behind, Liverpool need City to drop points in the final game. Despite falling behind early in the first half, City saw off Brighton 4-1 to clinch their fourth Premier League title and Pep Guardiola’s second in a row.

Manchester City won their third title on the final day of the season, while Liverpool suffered yet another final day heartache. Liverpool finished with 97 points – the third highest total in Premier League history and the highest in English top-flight history for a second-placed team.

The Reds, though, went on to win their 6th Champions League title to make up for the heartache on the domestic front. Manchester City, meanwhile, completed the ‘domestic treble’ by winning the Premier League, the FA Cup and the League Cup.

#6 2007-08: Manchester United vs Chelsea and Arsenal

Manchester United won the Premier League and beat Chelsea in the UCL final to claim the double
Manchester United won the Premier League and beat Chelsea in the UCL final to claim the double

This was a season which saw Manchester United and Chelsea begin and end the season battling for trophies. These two sides came up against each other in the annual curtain-raiser- the Community Shield, which Manchester United won on penalties after a 1-1 draw at full-time.

United were slow off the blocks in the Premier League, but both United and Arsenal led the table at various points in the season, before the Gunners fell away off post February to make it a two-horse title race. Chelsea, meanwhile, trailed both sides for the vast majority of the season, before an unbeaten run post Christmas enabled them to launch a late challenge for the title.

Heading into the final 5 games of the season, however, it became a three-way battle for the title yet again. United held a three point advantage over Chelsea, and a six point advantage over Arsenal. They still had to face the Gunners at home and then travel to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea in a potential title decider two weeks later. Crucially, though, they were well ahead of their two competitors on goal difference.

United came from behind to beat Arsenal 2-1 and kick the Gunners out of the title race. The following day, Chelsea suffered a disappointing last minute draw against Wigan Athletic to leave them 5 points behind with just 4 games to go. In the following game, United snatched a late equaliser and a crucial point. The Red Devils travelled to Chelsea with a crucial 3 point lead and the fate of the title in their own hands, even if they suffered a defeat at Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea won the battle of the two title contenders and pulled level on points with Manchester United, trailing them only on goal difference with two games to go. Both sides won their respective penultimate games to take the title race into the final day of the season.

United went to Wigan on the final day of the season, knowing that they only had to better or equal Chelsea’s result. A comfortable 2-0 win ensured that the title would stay at Old Trafford regardless of the result of Chelsea’s game. A last-minute equaliser by Bolton against Chelsea ensured that the title wouldn’t have to be decided by goal difference, as United won the league by 2 points.

The two English sides faced off against each other in the UEFA Champions League final as well 10 days later in Moscow, and the Red Devils once again came out on top in a tense penalty shootout. Chelsea captain John Terry had the chance to clinch the trophy for the Blues, but slipped while taking his spot kick to keep United in the game.

United keeper Edwin van der Sar saved Anelka’s penalty to ensure that Manchester United would do a double over the Blues. It was a disappointing season for Chelsea, who also lost in the final of the League Cup to end the season trophy-less.

#5 1995-96: Manchester United vs Newcastle United

Sir Alex Ferguson won the battle of the managers to lead Manchester United to a famous triumph over Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United
Sir Alex Ferguson won the battle of the managers to lead Manchester United to a famous triumph over Kevin Keegan's Newcastle United

After suffering a narrow title defeat to Blackburn Rovers, Manchester United were back in the title chase, this time against Newcastle United. This season was won off the pitch by the manager just as much as it was won on the pitch by the players, as Newcastle’s manager Kevin Keegan lost out to United’s legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson.

Newcastle ran away with a big lead in the first half of the season, and they led Manchester United by 10 points when the two teams faced off in the Boxing Day fixture. A 2-0 home win at Old Trafford cut the gap down to seven points, and they reduced it to just four points by the turn of the year. However, poor form in January enabled Newcastle to once again build up a massive lead of 12 points with just 15 games to go.

With the title sliding towards Newcastle, Sir Alex went on to say that smaller teams might try as hard against the Geordies as they did against his team, and the Magpies crumbled under pressure. Newcastle went on a horrendous run of 5 losses in 8 games, including a loss to Manchester United, allowing the Red Devils to surge ahead in the process.

Manchester United went into the final game of the season against Middlesbrough two points ahead, and Newcastle had to win their final game against Tottenham and hope that their Mancunian rivals fail to win. Kevin Keegan would have done well not to take Sir Alex’s bait, but he couldn’t let the remark slide, and came out with his infamous rant, saying that he would love it if his side can beat Manchester United.

United didn’t flounder under pressure like their rivals did, beating Middlesbrough 3-0, while Newcastle could only eke out a draw, losing the title by four points.

#4 2013-14: Manchester City vs Liverpool and Chelsea

Gerrard's untimely slip with two games to go handed Manchester City the title
Gerrard's untimely slip with two games to go handed Manchester City the title

This was the first season post Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, and also the first Premier League season in a long time in which Manchester United were never in the title reckoning. Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea were involved in a 3-way battle for the title, that Arsenal led 24 games into the season before slipping away without posing a challenge. The season was decided on the final day of the season.

The league was so tight that 5 teams were separated by two points at the top during Christmas. Liverpool led the race, ahead of Arsenal on goal difference, with City a point behind, and Chelsea and Everton a point further back. Christmas table-toppers Liverpool had two difficult away ties at Manchester City and Chelsea before the turn of the year. They went on to lose both the games 2-1 to slip to fourth as Arsenal moved to the top.

24 games in, Arsenal sat on top of the table with 55 points, with Manchester City and Chelsea on 53, and Liverpool way behind on 47. Liverpool welcomed home table-toppers Arsenal and decimated them 5-1, and the wheels began to come off in Arsenal’s title challenge. Liverpool embarked on a 11 game winning run that included a sensational 3-2 win over nearest title challengers Manchester City to move to the top of the table.

After the City game, Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard delivered the now infamous rallying cry where he stated that they shall not slip up after this. No one could have expected how ironic that statement would prove to be.

With just three games to play for Liverpool, they were 5 points ahead of Chelsea and 6 ahead of Manchester City, who had a game in hand on both the challengers. All Liverpool had to do was avoid losing any of the 3 games, and win at least two to ensure the title would be theirs.

Liverpool welcomed Chelsea to Anfield, as Jose Mourinho came in with a second-string side with one eye on their upcoming Champions League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. Despite the weakened side, Mourinho, who has a complicated relationship with the Anfield faithful, came into the match hoping to spoil Liverpool’s title charge and he did just that.

The fatal slip from Steven Gerrard came towards the end of the first half, and allowed Demba Ba to latch on and score. Liverpool fell behind, and despite the best efforts of Gerrard and the attacking talent on their books, they were unable to find a way to level the game and suffered a 2-0 loss. It meant that City were now just 3 points behind, but with a game in hand and a significantly better goal difference in their favour.

The Merseysiders knew that if City were to win their remaining 3 games, the title would be out of their hands unless they win their remaining two games by a goal difference of almost 12. In the penultimate game of the season at Crystal Palace, Liverpool, looking to boost their goal difference, squandered a 3-0 lead to draw 3-3 in an epic second half collapse to leave their players in tears.

With City reeling off wins, Liverpool needed an unlikely City loss and a win of their own in the final game-week of the season to secure the title. Though Liverpool completed the job on their hands, Manchester City clinched their second Premier League title by 2 points with a 2-0 win against West Ham United. Manchester City won the title despite leading the league only at the end of the first and the final two game-weeks- a total of 14 days.

#3 1998-99: Manchester United vs Arsenal and Chelsea

The Premier League was the first title in an extraordinary treble winning season for Manchester United
The Premier League was the first title in an extraordinary treble winning season for Manchester United

Having suffered a one-point league title loss to Arsenal the previous season, the onus was on Manchester United to wrest back the title from the North Londoners. They did that in absolute style as they ended the season with the coveted ‘treble’ of the Premier League, the Champions League and the FA Cup.

A tense title race between the two London clubs and United was settled on the final day of the season, as Ferguson’s men reversed the previous season’s loss by clinching the title by one point.

A gripping conclusion to the season in which all three clubs were in contention saw Chelsea slip out in early May. Arsenal and Manchester United, level on points, duelled for the title again in the final two weeks. Arsenal’s 1-0 loss to Leeds United and United’s 0-0 draw against Blackburn Rovers meant that Ferguson’s side were one point ahead of Wenger’s Gunners heading into the final day of the campaign.

Arsenal faced Aston Villa, while their championship rivals Manchester United had to face their North London enemy Tottenham Hotspur in the final game of the season.

The drama continued into the final day as Spurs took a shock lead early in the first half, and with Arsenal still level in the other title-deciding game, the title would remain at North London. But goals from David Beckham and Andy Cole on either side of half-time put the Red Devils in the driver’s seat, leaving the result at Highbury inconsequential if the score stayed the same.

Arsenal took the lead midway into the second half, and their fans would have been praying that their local rivals would do them a favour. Despite anxious moments, United held on to clinch the title by one point as they embarked on the first of three titles that they’d win within 10 days.

#2 1994-95: Blackburn Rovers vs Manchester United

Blackburn clinched the Premier League trophy on the final day of a thrilling season
Blackburn clinched the Premier League trophy on the final day of a thrilling season

Driven by Alan Shearer’s mind-boggling 34 goals, the previous season’s runners-up Blackburn Rovers led the 94-95 title race for most of the campaign. They faced a stiff challenge from defending champions Manchester United, who went into the final game of the season against West Ham United just two points behind the table toppers.

Blackburn, meanwhile, faced United’s bitter rivals Liverpool in the final game, knowing that a win would guarantee a title and all they had to do was match United’s final day result. The fact that they were facing Liverpool in the final match could also have been seen as an added advantage, as they’d have wanted to deny the title going to Manchester. As well as having nothing to play for, they might as well have just handed the title to their club legend, Kenny Dalglish, who was the manager of Blackburn.

Surprisingly though, both title contenders failed to win their respective games, leading to a nervy climax. Despite taking the lead, Blackburn ended up losing 2-1 to Liverpool. Manchester United though, fluffed their chance and ended up drawing 1-1, when a win would have clinched them the title.

Blackburn won their first league title in 81 years and their first major title in 67 years.

#1 2011-12: Manchester City vs Manchester United

Aguero clinched the Premier League trophy for Manchester City with 90 seconds of time left on the clock
Aguero clinched the Premier League trophy for Manchester City with 90 seconds of time left on the clock

If a football league season can be made into a movie, this season would be one of the top contenders. The climax of this season was so dramatic that just the events of the final day could be made into a movie.

Both Manchester clubs had fine starts to their seasons, and as is the norm in any fiercely contested season, matches between the two rivals was expected to have a huge bearing on which side the title would tilt.

8 games into the season, Manchester City travelled to Old Trafford and decimated the defending champions 6-1 to announce themselves as worthy title contenders, taking a 5 point lead. City maintained the lead till March, when a shock defeat to Swansea City saw them fall behind in the race.

City’s bad form continued, and United’s winning run saw City fall eight points behind with just 6 games to play. It seemed once more that the title would remain in the red half of Manchester. That’s when United faltered with a defeat and a draw in consecutive games, enabling City narrow the gap to just three points, with a title-deciding Manchester derby at the Etihad Stadium still to come.

City skipper Vincent Kompany popped up with a header at the stroke of half-time to ensure that City beat United 1–0, and also move back ahead of United, on goal difference. Both sides won their penultimate matches to head into the final day level on points, with just goal difference separating them.

All Manchester City had to do was match or better their city rival's result. As is customary, both the games kicked off simultaneously, and the rest as we say is history. Manchester United did all they could as they beat Sunderland at the Stadium of Light. They hoped for a favour from Queens Park Rangers, who themselves were embroiled in a fight to avoid relegation.

Zabaleta gave the Citizens a first-half lead and put them on the road to the title, but the tide swung quickly in the second half. Despite going a man down, QPR took a shock lead and put the Red Devils ahead in the title race. The game ended at Sunderland, with Manchester United all set to be crowned champions, before the unthinkable happened as the game entered stoppage time at the Etihad Stadium.

Substitute Edin Dzeko pulled Manchester City level with 91 minutes played, and 4 minutes of injury time left to find another goal that to snatch the title from their fierce enemies' grasp.

Sergio Aguero won them the league with 90 seconds of stoppage time to play, and Manchester City won their first league title in 43 years. The blue moon had risen as Manchester turned blue.

Manchester City finally proved that they were indeed United's noisy neighbours as a new era began, one in which they began to establish themselves as the dominant force in English football.

Paul Merson has predicted the results for Chelsea vs Tottenham and other GW 2 fixtures! Click here

Edited by Sai Krishna


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