While there’s no such thing as an undeserving Premier League champion, plenty of teams have come close to tasting top-flight glory only to fall at the final hurdle.
Featuring late-season slip-ups (both figurative and literal), managerial meltdowns and some sudden dips of form – these are the best teams not to win the Premier League...
Arsene Wenger came close to pulling off back-to-back doubles in 1999, only to be denied on both fronts by Manchester United. With Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka both in the form of their lives, Wenger bolstered his ranks with the additions of Freddie Ljungberg, Nelson Vivas and, in January, Nwankwo Kanu.
And though Ryan Giggs’s solo strike in the FA Cup semi-final replay ended their double hopes, Arsenal had the league title in their own hands despite being level on points with United with two games remaining.
But then came a disastrous 1-0 loss to Leeds which crippled their campaign, made all the more frustrating by United dropping points against Blackburn a day later. It left the Gunners praying for Tottenham to take something from Old Trafford on the final day, but Les Ferdinand’s opening goal was rendered useless by strikes in reply from David Beckham and Andy Cole.
Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers had raced into a 12-point lead by mid-January 1996, albeit having played a game more than rivals Manchester United. With the likes of Keith Gillespie, Les Ferdinand and David Ginola propelling the Magpies to 20 wins from their first 27 matches, title success looked imminent.
But the old adage about attack being the best form of defence proved to be Newcastle’s undoing – mainly because defenders like Philippe Albert’s spent too much time attacking and not enough, well, defending.
A 1-0 defeat to Manchester United in early March had cut the gap to four points, and it was after a 1-1 draw against Nottingham Forest in their next match when Keegan let rip with his famous “love it” rant.
By that point it was a matter of when, not if, they’d be overtaken. Defeats to Arsenal, Liverpool and Blackburn – within four matches – contributed to them finishing four points behind a resurgent Red Devils, spearheaded by the returning Eric Cantona after his eight-month suspension for karate-kicking a fan.
While Rafa Benitez’s rampant Liverpool side of 2008/09 is best remembered for the dynamic duo of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard, the truth is the Reds had class all over the pitch. Pepe Reina was a fine goalkeeper, Jamie Carragher marshalled the defence, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano patrolled central midfield, while even players like Yossi Benayoun and Dirk Kuyt made important attacking contributions. By Christmas they were top, having lost just once.
They would suffer defeat only once more in the league too, but a clutch of drab results in January and February left them 10 points off the summit. Rafa Benitez had directed his ill-judged and infamous “facts” rant at mind games master Ferguson early in the new year, and despite a 4-1 win over United at Old Trafford late in the campaign, their rivals retained the upper hand and won the league with a game to spare.
The Norfolk side had won just 11 games during the 1991/92 season, finishing three points clear of the drop zone, but inexplicably led from the front during the inaugural season of the Premier League.
Experienced pros like Mark Robins and emerging talents like Ruel Fox and Chris Sutton combined as Norwich earned famous comeback wins over Arsenal and Chelsea early on in the campaign.
The Canaries were flying heading towards Christmas, having established an eight-point lead at the top by early December. Despite some patchy form, Norwich managed to climb back to the top of the standings by early February. They were still second with six games to go, but a 3-1 home defeat to title rivals Manchester United clipped their wings and a rotten run of results left Mike Walker’s side 10 points adrift by the end.
Despite the disappointment, Norwich finished a credible third to secure UEFA Cup football. And then came Jeremy Goss in Munich…
Manchester United, 2011/12
Though United fans will have fond memories of Newcastle’s collapse that handed their team the title in 1996, the truth is that the greatest Premier League capitulation came from Old Trafford.
Fired on by the goals of Wayne Rooney, United had established an eight-point lead over second-place Manchester City with just six games to go in 2012. But a shock defeat to relegation-threatened Wigan, coupled with a 4-4 draw with Everton in which United blew a 3-1 lead, meant City could go top with victory in the Manchester derby.
A Vincent Kompany header duly delivered the necessary 1-0 win, and Roberto Mancini’s side were back on track. Yaya Toure’s double sunk Newcastle in the penultimate game, teeing up a final-day clash against QPR that proved far more entertaining than it should have been.
Leeds began the new millennium top of the Premier League, and with hopes high for a first title in eight years.
Manager David O’Leary, in only his second season in charge, looked capable of emulating Alex Ferguson’s success with a vibrant young team; his ‘babies’ included the likes of Alan Smith, Jonathan Woodgate and Harry Kewell. Add in the goals of summer signing Michael Bridges, who bagged 19 in the league that season, and the Whites had a genuinely exciting team.
Leeds appeared to catch their own millennium bug, however, and struggled to keep the pace from January onwards. O’Leary’s side struggled to balance a demanding schedule that eventually included a UEFA Cup semi-final, losing eight of their 14 league games between late-December and mid-April.
Despite high early hopes, a third-place finish with Champions League qualification was seen as a worthy consolation prize.
Avram Grant is hardly trumpeted as a Chelsea great in the dugout, but he came mightily close to securing a Premier League, Champions League and League Cup treble at Stamford Bridge. Grant’s Blues went the whole season unbeaten at home in all competitions and racked up 85 points – a new record in a 38-game season without securing the title.
Despite the combined efforts of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Joe Cole et al, the Blues couldn’t overhaul Manchester United and finished two points behind Fergie’s Reds – that, after losing in February’s League Cup final to Tottenham.
Ten days later, John Terry’s slip in Moscow delivered the Champions League to United. Grant got the blame, and was sacked after Chelsea’s first trophyless season in four years.
Having announced themselves as title contenders with a 5-1 demolition of then-league leaders Arsenal in February 2014, Liverpool looked primed for Premier League glory.
Steven Gerrard was back in form, Raheem Sterling was thrilling as a 20-year-old, and the devastating SAS strike partnership of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge would ultimately combine for a whopping 52 goals and 19 assists that season.
A fine 3-2 win over closest rivals Manchester City, followed by another at Norwich, gave the Reds a three-point lead with three games to go. This does not ****ing slip.
Except it did – or, more specifically, the player who gave that rousing speech did. Gerrard’s misstep gifted Jose Mourinho’s under-strength Chelsea team an early lead at Anfield, and with Liverpool pouring forward in search of a late equaliser, the Blues broke to add a second via Willian. A few days later, Liverpool blew a 3-0 lead over Crystal Palace to draw 3-3.
It meant that, by the final day, Manchester City’s 2-0 win over West Ham was enough for them claim the title by a margin of two points.
With the likes of Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City all faltering, Tottenham emerged as the only true contenders to shock title hopefuls Leicester in 2016.
The Foxes aside, Mauricio Pochettino’s team had been one of the revelations of the season. In the end their points tally didn’t show for it, but the manner of their victories was so often emphatic.
Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Erik Lamela combined to lay on a stream of goals for Harry Kane, who ended the season with 25. At the other end, Hugo Lloris kept 13 clean sheets, while Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen formed one of the most effective defensive duos in the league.
In another season it might have been enough to secure a Premier League title, but the confidence and momentum was with Leicester. After a slow start to the campaign, Spurs were always playing catch-up – quite often literally, by regularly playing after their rivals. Hindsight tells us they were never really in it, but their hopes were well and truly vanquished in their final four games. After being held to a 1-1 draw by West Brom, Spurs blew a 2-0 lead at Chelsea to draw 2-2 and confirm Leicester’s title.
Tottenham didn’t recover and ended the season third in a two-horse race, 11 points behind the champions, after a 5-1 thrashing at relegated Newcastle on the final day.
Having won the Double in 2002, Arsenal appeared prime for back-to-back Premier League success after establishing a five-point lead over Manchester United by early March 2003.
Thierry Henry and Robert Pires were in fine fettle, while World Cup winner Gilberto Silva had joined Patrick Vieira in central midfield. Not every signing hit the mark – the less said about defender Pascal Cygan, the better – but in any case, the title was theirs to win with three games to go after a 2-2 draw against closest rivals Manchester United had them ahead on goal difference.
But then came Big Sam’s Big Bad Bolton to go ahead and ruin everything. Allardyce didn’t beat an Arsene Wenger side until his eighth game against the Frenchman, but his sides only lost three of those first seven – and on this occasion, a 2-2 draw from two goals down was enough to kill off the Gunners’ title hopes. Wenger’s side were beaten 3-2 by Leeds in their penultimate game to hand United the title with a game to spare.
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