Beyond a choke: Chelsea beware, titles have been lost before

Although he’d never admit it, Manchester City’s 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Monday night went down well in Jose Mourinho’s household. The Eagles’ victory meant City stay nine points behind Chelsea.

With the Blues seven clear of nearest rivals Arsenal, and a game in hand against struggling Leicester to come, Mourinho’s men now need just five wins from their last eight fixtures to confirm their first title in half a decade.

Chelsea should be wary, though. Just ask these sides, who all seemed to be home and hosed but ended up high and dry...

Manchester United 2011/12

“No, it’s not over. In football it’s never finished until you reach the [mathematical] point where you can’t go top. For this reason I believe always that we can win”. As he uttered those words, even Roberto Mancini did not sound convinced. The Manchester City boss had just watched his side lose 1-0 to Arsenal, a result that left them eight points adrift of rivals Manchester United with six games remaining.

Sir Alex Ferguson warned against complacency, but his team started to wobble, winning just one of their next four games. A surprise defeat away at lowly Wigan Athletic was soon followed by a highly-entertaining but wholly avoidable 4-4 draw against Everton at Old Trafford.

City closed the gap with victories over West Brom, Norwich and Wolves, then deservedly won the Manchester derby, leaving United inexplicably in second place with just two matches to play.

As is their traditional wont, City nearly blew it on the final day, requiring two stoppage-time goals to defeat QPR and lift their first Premier League title, but this was a championship thrown away by United.

Ipswich Town 1980/81, 1981/82

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, “to lose one seemingly insurmountable lead in the First Division title race may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness”.

That was the fate of Ipswich Town in the early 1980s. Losing seven of their final 10 games in 1980/81 – thus plummeting from top to eighth – can be excused given Bobby Robson’s side won the UEFA Cup that term, but they did not learn their lessons and repeated the same mistakes a year later.

By late January 1982, Town were three points clear at the top with three games in hand; Liverpool, the eventual champions, were down in seventh. Yet Ipswich’s 4-0 defeat at Anfield began the Reds’ charge up the table, and Bob Paisley’s side ended the campaign with four more points than their rivals.

Newcastle United 1995/96

Kevin Keegan won 63 England caps, nine top trophies, two European Footballer of the Year awards and an OBE, but ask people to sum him up in one sentence and most will say “I would love it if we beat them”.

Jabbing his finger at an unseen interlocutor, the Newcastle boss infamously lost his cool in a tunnel interview following the Magpies' 1-0 triumph away at Leeds, whose motivation had been questioned before the game by Manchester United’s manager Alex Ferguson.

Although the moment was held up as a great victory for Fergie’s mind games, the Red Devils were already top. Newcastle had been 12 points clear in mid-January, but gung-ho tactics and chaotic defending meant the Toon dropped points in eight of their last 13 fixtures, while the Red Devils won 19 of their last 21 games in league and FA Cup to clinch their second Double in three seasons.

Manchester United 1971/72

In 1974 the Red Devils suffered their first relegation since the war, and many believe the emphatic title surrender of 1971/72 set the wheels in motion.

Five points clear in early December, United went on an extraordinary three-month winless run, dropping as low as ninth in the standings. Three consecutive victories in March proved to be an aberration: Frank O’Farrell’s outfit triumphed in only two of their last eight encounters, eventually finishing eighth.

Demotion was narrowly avoided the following year but United were a club on the slide. Their fate was sealed in April 1974, after a 1-0 home loss to Manchester City – through a backheeled goal by Denis Law.

Arsenal 2002/03

The Invincibles of 2003/04 will justifiably go down as one of the greatest teams English football has ever seen – but perhaps Arsenal should also have been celebrating a third successive Premier League title rather than wrestling it back from Manchester United.

In early March 2003 the Gunners opened up an eight-point lead and seemed set to retain the top-flight title for the first time since the Herbert Chapman era. When Charlton Athletic were despatched 2-0, one publicity-hungry bookmaker even paid out on Arsenal winning the league.

Arsene Wenger’s men dropped points in five of their last nine games, including a crucial early-May home defeat to drop-dodging Leeds, but Manchester United were inexorable.

After Boxing Day they didn’t lose any of their 18 league games, hoovering up 48 points from a possible 54 to turn an eight-point deficit into a five-point winning margin.

Burnley 1961/62

In early March 1962, it was all looking good for Harry Potts’ Burnley. Four points clear with a game in hand, the 1959/60 champions were looking to reclaim their crown after finishing fourth the previous season.

As winter turned to spring, they had seemed unstoppable, especially at Turf Moor, where they won 13 of their first 15 games: Manchester City were thrashed 6-3, Birmingham shellacked 7-1 and West Ham walloped 6-0. Burnley were rampant and unforgiving, Jimmys McIlroy and Adamson the standout players.

But after that West Ham win, the wheels came off. Potts’ men completely collapsed, winning just two of their final 13 games. The fact that they finished just three points short of Ipswich (managed by Alf Ramsey and champions in their debut top-flight season) is testament to how dominant they had been but, despite netting 101 goals, they finished the campaign empty-handed... also losing the FA Cup final to Tottenham.

Leeds United and Manchester United 2001/02

A glance at the final league table from 2001/02 would suggest that Arsenal’s triumph – they finished seven points clear of second-placed Liverpool – was a relatively comfortable one.

However, the Gunners profited from alarming slumps of two big northern rivals, each of whom went badly off the boil in the spring. Leeds had led the way at the turn of the year but an FA Cup capitulation at Cardiff prompted a woeful haul of four points from the next seven games – and three losses from the last seven encounters saw them eventually fall to fifth, 21 points off the pace.

When Leeds slipped, Manchester United took pole position, but mistakes in March against Derby and Middlesbrough gave Arsenal hope, and after Sylvain Wiltord’s winner at Old Trafford clinched the title, Fergie’s dispirited men finished third, behind Liverpool and 10 points shy of the champions.

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