Newcastle United (1995/96)
That kit. That rant. That game. Newcastle’s title mid-90s charge may have taken on a story of its own, but the merest mention of Kevin Keegan’s Entertainers is enough to induce a misty-eyed swoon in even the most tattooed, bare chested Toon uber-fan.
Twelve points clear in early February, the Magpies’ lead was slowly chipped away by Alex Ferguson’s relentless United, eventually leading to Keegan’s “I will love it” meltdown in front of the Sky cameras. The 4-3 defeat at Anfield, and Mighty Mouse’s collapse over the advertising hoardings, crossed football with a Greek tragedy. Captivating.
Bayer Leverkusen (2001/02)
Neverkusen finished runners-up four times in six seasons from 1996/97, but it’s their 11-day collapse in May 2002 – losing the Bundesliga on the final day to Borussia Dortmund, the German Cup to Schalke and the Champions League to Zinedine Zidane’s ethereal volley – which defines them.
This was a good side, too, featuring the granite Lucio in defence, peak Michael Ballack in midfield and a young Dimitar Berbatov up front. “When they play decisive games,” said Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness, “they put their nappies on.” Maybe so, but they’ve never done bird for tax evasion either, sausage boy.
When Roman Abramovich had enough of Jose Mourinho being Jose Mourinho (the first time round) in September 2007, Avram Grant took the reins and did a brilliant job at righting a listing ship and guiding it into port. Just not quite the right port.
Chelsea were runners-up to Manchester United in the Premier League, Community Shield and Champions League, and lost to Spurs in the League Cup final. Most of all, though, spare a thought for Tal Ben Haim. The centre-back is the only player to have Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League runners-up medals, without ever having won one.
Deportivo La Coruna (1993/94)
Only in the top flight for a couple of years, Depor had conceded just 18 times in 37 games going into the last game of the 1993/94 season. Win at home to Valencia and La Liga was theirs. In the 89th minute, they won a penalty. Regular taker Donato had been substituted and top scorer Bebeto refused to take it. Step forward centre-back Miroslav Djukic, whose tame effort was easily saved. Barcelona won the title on head-to-head record.
“It was,” Djukic later admitted, “the worst moment of my life. I had to stop thinking about it because I nearly drove myself mad.”
Real Madrid (1991/92)
Top of La Liga by three points in January 1992, Real Madrid president Ramon Mendoza decided the time was right to sack manager Radi Antic because Los Blancos had won only two of their previous six. Antic had moved 23-year-old defender Fernando Hierro into midfield – who went on to score 21 league goals – and had even found a way to get the best out of Michel, Emilio Butragueno and indolent playmaking genius Gheorghe Hagi, but was replaced by Leo Beenhakker.
On the final day, they needed to win at Tenerife. Two-nil up inside 10 minutes, they drew 2-2 and gifted the title to Barcelona.
Leeds United (1974/75)
The last hurrah for one of English football’s great teams – Hunter, Giles, Bremner, Lorimer, Clarke remains one of the strongest spines in history. The Whites reached the 1975 European Cup Final despite losing one of their first eight games of the season. Some questionable refereeing put paid to a trophy, though, with Bayern Munich’s 2-0 win sparking a riot in the crowd.
“Throw all your medals in the bin,” Clough had told his squad at the beginning of the season. By its end, they’d finally listened. Probably.
Inter Milan (1966/67)
Led by flying full-back Giacinto Fachetti, brutish sweeper Armando Picchi and enough skill from Sandro Mazzola and the original Luis Suarez, Helenio Herrera’s Grande Inter were probably the greatest defensive team in history. Inter began the 1966/67 Serie A campaign with a record-breaking seven straight victories and knocked out defending champions Real Madrid in European Cup quarter-finals 3-0 on aggregate in the spring, but the wheels fell off.
The Nerazzurri lost at Mantova on the final day of Serie A to gift the title to Juventus, then went down 2-1 to Celtic in the European Cup final, after going 1-0 up within seven minutes. “Giuliano, let it go,” said Picchi to his goalkeeper Giuliano Sarti with 10 minutes to go. “It’s pointless. Sooner or later they’ll get the winner.” The Scots did and Inter were never quite the same again.
Dundee United (1986/87)
Along with Aberdeen, the Terrors were a glorious antidote to Scottish football’s Old Firm duopoly in the 1980s. In 1983/84 they reached the European Cup semi-finals – controversially knocked out by Roma, later implicated in paying off referees – but it was their run to the UEFA Cup final three seasons later which should have brought the trophy their glorious combination of grit, passing football and Jim McLean’s almost tyrannical management deserved.
McClean’s men beat Barcelona home and away but fell in the final to IFK Gothenburg. They remain the only team with a 100% record against the Catalans: P4, W4. Decent.
The Intertoto Cup was the tournament no one wanted to enter, let alone win. Bordeaux had to play 10 matches before even reaching the preliminary round of the UEFA Cup, then another 14 in the tournament proper in reaching the two-legged final. Les Girondins’ roll call of opponents reads like a list of budget European airports, with one obvious exception – Odense, HJK, Norrkoping, Bohemians, Eintracht Frankfurt, Heereveen, Karlsruhe, Vardar, Rotor Volgograd, Real Betis, Milan, Slavia Prague.
The final against Bayern Munich was a step too far for this fine Bordeaux vintage captained by Bixente Lizarazu, with Richard Witschge in midfield and Christophe Dugarry up front. Oh, and some fella called Zinedine Zidane, it says here. Never heard of him.
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