8 of the closest title races in recent European football history
In the next few weeks, we will see the winners of different leagues around Europe crowned. Some of the title races are effectively over due to the vast gap between the top sides like in the case of Bundesliga, Serie A and Premier League, while in some other leagues like the La Liga and Ligue 1, the gap between the teams battling for the title is so small that the fight could go down to the very last day of the season.Fans generally enjoy it when the race for the league goes to the wire as it adds more excitement to the games. For example, even the neutral fans would have enjoyed the epic climax to the 2011/12 Premier League season.Over the course of football history, there have been many incredibly close title races like the famous night at Anfield in 1988/99 when Arsenal stole the title from Liverpool on their own turf or the playoff match in 1963/64 between Bologna and Inter to decide the winner of the Serie A.Here is a look at 8 of the best finishes to a league season from around Europe in the 21st century:
#8 Bundesliga - 2001/02
The story of the 2001/02 season for Bayer Leverkusen is a hallmark of Michael Ballack’s extremely unlucky career.
With five games to go in the season, Leverkusen had extended their lead over Borussia Dortmund to four points. In a nerve-wracking match against Hamburg, the ghosts of the past came to haunt Leverkusen as two seasons ago, Ballack had put the ball into his own net and conceded the title to Bayern Munich.
Luckily for Leverkusen, Dortmund suffered a defeat to Kaiserslautern and that extended Leverkusen’s lead to five points despite their draw against Hamburg. Bayer were on the brink of securing a historic treble as they were already into the finals of the domestic Cup and the UEFA Champions League.
But things started to fall apart for Leverkusen. They lost two games back to back and gave away their 5 point lead and Dortmund won the league by a single point courtesy of a winning goal from Ewerthon in the 74th minute of the last game of the season.
Within the next 10 days, they also lost the German cup to Schalke and the Champions League to Zidane’s left foot.
#7 La Liga - 2006/07
Barcelona were favourites to win the title for most of the season, but a defeat to Chelsea in the Champions League dented their good run of form and they started to drop points.
During this period, Real Madrid who were behind their arch rivals, slowly made their way up the table and with four games left in the season, they were ahead of Barcelona on head to head record, which is the first criteria used to differentiate between two teams tied on points in Spain.
In the penultimate game of the season, Real Madrid were playing Real Zaragoza and were heading for a defeat, but a late goal from Van Nistelrooy helped them save a valuable point. Barcelona on the other hand, were playing Espanyol in their local derby and were headed for a sure shot victory, but a late goal from Raul Tamudo ended the game in a draw. This meant that once again Real Madrid were ahead on head to head.
In the last game of the season, Barcelona steamrolled Gimnastic five goals to one, while Real Madrid fell behind early at the Bernabeu but came back in the second half with a brace from Jose Antonio Reyes and a goal from Mahamadou Diarra to win the game.
Although Barcelona had a goal difference of 45 and Real Madrid only had 26, the rules of the La Liga meant that Real Madrid were league champions.
#6 Tippeligaen (Norwegian League) - 2004
The Norwegian league may not have the glitz and glamour of some of Europe’s top football leagues, but the league witnessed one of the most exciting finishes to a league season in recent times.
The league was a two horse race between Rosenberg and Valeranga for the majority of the season and heading into the final game of the season, both teams were level on 45 points.
Rosenberg had a goal difference of 15 with 48 goals scored while Valeranga also had a 15 goal difference but had only scored 37 goals. The former won their game 4-1 against Valeranga’s derby opponents Lyn Oslo, but their game ended six minutes before Valeranga’s game in Oslo.
Valeranga were leading their game 3-0 against Stabaek at this point, but they couldn’t find a goal in the most nerve wracking six minutes of Norwegian football and therefore Rosenberg won the title on more goals scored.
#5 La Liga - 2013/14
The 2013/14 La Liga season was the first one in over a decade where there was a third title contender in addition to Real Madrid and Barcelona.
All three teams led the league table at some point of time and towards the end of the season, each team threw away a golden opportunity to seal the title when their opponents slipped up.
The Catalans led the table from the first gameweek to the 21st gameweek, but defeats at the hands of Valencia and Sociedad put them in third. Real Madrid took the lead at this point, but their defeat in the El Clasico put Atletico Madrid on top for the first time in the season.
With four games remaining in the season, Real Madrid lost one and drew two to put themselves out of contention in the race and at the same time, Atletico Madrid lost and drew their last two games heading into the final game. This was the perfect opportunity for Barcelona to take the lead, but they too slipped up and drew two games back to back before going into the final game.
With one match to go, Atletico Madrid led the table with 89 points, followed by Barcelona with 86 points and then Real Madrid, who were out at this stage with only 84 points. To make matters interesting Barcelona were hosting Atletico Madrid on the final day. The home side needed a win while Atletico only needed a draw.
Alexis Sanchez scored the first goal of the game for Barcelona to put them ahead but a headed goal from Diego Godin minutes after half time leveled the game and Barcelona were not able to score again, thereby making Atletico Madrid the La Liga champions.
#4 Serie A 2001/02
The race for the title boiled down to three teams in this season, namely, Internazionale, AS Roma and Juventus, but the team that played spoilsport were Lazio.
With six games to go, Lazio held Juventus to a draw and helped Inter open up a six-point lead at the top. The odds were stacked in favour of the Milanese club, but they dropped 5 points in the next four games and Inter went into the final game with 69 points, followed by Juventus with 68 and Roma with 67.
Inter’s final game of the season was away to Lazio. They were close to going into the half time break with a 2-1 lead, but a goal from Lazio before the whistle dented their confidence and they came back in the second half and conceded two more goals and were not able to recover from it.
At the same time, Roma were winning their game 1-0 courtesy of a goal from Cassano, but the title was heading to Turin as Juventus won their game 2-0 with goals from Trezeguet and Del Piero.
#3 Eredivisie - 2006/07
The battle for the title in this particular season was not between two clubs. It was a three-way battle between Ajax Amsterdam, PSV Eindhoven managed by Ronald Koeman and AZ Alkmaar managed by Louis van Gaal.
After 20 games, Eindhoven were sitting comfortably in first place with an eleven point lead, but in the next few games AZ and Ajax caught up with PSV and going into the last game, all three teams were tied on 72 points, with AZ leading the trio with a superior goal difference of 53 in comparison to Ajax’s 47 and PSV’s 46.
In the last game of the season, AZ suffered a shock defeat at the hands of relegation-threatened Excelsior Rotterdam while Ajax won their game at Willem II, 2-0.
At this stage, even if PSV won their game by a three goal margin, Ajax would win the title as both teams were tied on goal difference, but Ajax had scored more goals.
PSV stole the show and the trophy from right under Ajax’s nose as they defeated Vitesse 5-1 courtesy of goals from players like Alex, Farfan, Afellay and the fifth one from their captain Phillip Cocu who was due to retire at the end of the season.
#2 Premier League - 2011/12
The 2011/12 Barclays Premier League season saw a see-saw ride between the two Manchester Clubs for the trophy.
The Manchester Derby was the 36th match of the season and United dropped 5 points in the three games before the derby, while City won all three to narrow the gap to just three points. City won the derby and led United by eight on goal difference.
Going into the last game of the season, the points and the goal difference between the teams remained unaltered. City were playing relegation-threatened QPR at home while United were playing Sunderland away. Now, QPR were in a spot of bother because if they lost against City and Bolton Wanderers won away to Stoke, then QPR would be relegated.
13 minutes into the game at the Britannia, Stoke scored, thereby making QPR safe from relegation. Seven minutes later, Wayne Rooney scored at the Stadium of Light to give United the lead and the score in that game would remain unaltered till the end.
The pressure was now on Man City, but a 39th minute goal from Zabaleta gave them the lead and in almost the same instance, Bolton equalized, but they would still be a point down on QPR and needed a win to escape relegation.
On the brink of half-time, Bolton scored again and climbed over QPR in the table and Rangers went into halftime knowing that they had to pull off a huge upset on the title contenders.
QPR came out all guns blazing and took a 2-1 lead in the 66th minute despite Joey Barton getting sent off in the 55th minute. City struggled to even find an equalizer as the QPR defense continued to frustrate them despite knowing that Stoke had equalized against Bolton in the 73rd minute.
Normal time was up in all the three crucial games. Soon United won their game while City were staring at defeat and Bolton were relegated as their game ended in a draw. The game at the Etihad was still going on and Edin Dzeko headed in the equalizer from a corner in the 2nd minute of additional time.
City still needed a goal to secure the title and with just second left on the clock Sergio Aguero picked up the ball outside the QPR box, played a one-two with Mario Balotelli, skipped past a couple of challenges and put the ball in the back of the net to give City their maiden Premier League title.
#1 Bundesliga - 2000/01
Bayern Munich and Schalke were involved in a close title race. Schalke were aiming for their first league title since 1958 while Bayern were aiming for a League and Champions League double as they were due to face Valencia in the final four days after the league ended.
Prior to the start of the penultimate game week, the teams were tied on points, but Schalke were leading the table due to their superior goal difference. Schalke were playing Stuttgart away, while Bayern were hosting Kaiserslautern. 89 minutes into both the games, the scores were level and it seemed like the games were headed for an inevitable draw. But the drama was about to unfold.
At almost the same time in both matches, goals were scored. Bayern’s substitute Zickler scored for the Bavarians to give them a 2-1 lead, while Stuttgart’s Balakov scored to help them take a 1-0 lead against Schalke. Bayern now had 62 points and +25 goal difference, while Schalke had 59 points with +28 goal difference.
Going into the final game, Schalke needed to win their game and hope Bayern lost theirs, while Bayern just needed to match their rivals’ result.
Schalke succumbed to the pressure and conceded two goals in the first half an hour, but they fought back to level the scores before half-time, only to fall behind again in the 69th minute. But the home side didn’t give up and within the space of a minute, they took the lead.
At the same time, Bayern’s game against Hamburger was goalless, meaning the Bavarians would win the title by a point. But once again there was a twist in the tale.
In the 89th minute of Schalke’s game, they scored their fifth to ensure their victory and a minute later in Bayern’s game, Sergej Barbarez scored for Hamburg to sway the title in Schalke’s favour for the first time on the night.
With just minutes left to play the title was slipping away from Bayern’s grasp and Schalke’s game was over by then. Bayern’s game was approaching its end when a new twist in the tale occurred.
Hamburg’s Tomas Ujfalusi’s back pass was picked up by his keeper Schober and Bayern were awarded an indirect free kick inside Hamburg’s penalty box. Their usual kick takers were not on the field and then surprisingly defender Patrik Andersson stepped up to take the kick and with the very last kick of the season, he scored an unlikely goal and won the title for Bayern!