Call that a close title race? THIS was a close title race...
Manchester City and United are locked together atop the Premier League, and as the season nears its climax, dare we hope for a finale as exciting as Germany's in 2001? Gerard Brand tells the story...
The first 19 years of the Premier League have seen two truly dramatic last-day title wins: Blackburn relying on a West Ham brick wall in 1995, and Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs 2-1 victory from behind against Spurs in 1999 denying Arsenal. The other last-day wins Ã¢ÂÂ ChelseaÃ¢ÂÂs 8-0 Wigan walloping in 2010 and Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs routine victories over Middlesbrough in 1996 and Wigan in 2008 Ã¢ÂÂ were barely worth checking Ceefax for.
The Premier LeagueÃ¢ÂÂs final day is better known for relegation candidates battling it out in matches not even a Mystic Meg would dare predict. But what's more entertaining? Drop-dodging battles may induce pain, euphoria, mass financial homicide and ill-advised on-pitch karaoke but staying up by the skin of the teeth can't compare to winning a title at the death, even if it is for the most hated club in the country.
The final fortnight of the 2000/01 German Bundesliga season featured a Schalke side looking for their first title since 1958 in their last season at the Parkstadion, lederhosen-to-lederhosen at the summit with one of the most successful Bayern Munich teams in recent history.
This wasnÃ¢ÂÂt just a last-day drama. This was a two-part series with more twists and turns than even the most enthusiastic (and unrealistic) soap opera writer could spit out, beginning on the penultimate weekend of fixtures.
Going into stoppage time at home to Kaiserslautern, Bayern were being held 1-1 while Schalke were goalless at Stuttgart. That would leave both teams level on 60 points heading into the final round, where SchalkeÃ¢ÂÂs superior goal difference and remaining home fixture with relegation candidates Unterhaching would put them in good stead, while Bayern faced a long trip to Hamburg.
Cue the first twist. In a frantic final minute, the pendulum swung toward Ottmar HitzfeldÃ¢ÂÂs Bayern. In Munich, Alexander ZicklerÃ¢ÂÂs ferocious 90th-minute volley turned one point into three for Bayern; simultaneously, relegation-threatened Stuttgart scored through Krasimir Balakov to beat Schalke. Advantage Die Bayern, three points clear going into the final week.
Enter round 34 of 34. In Gelsenkirchen, Schalke fans were in celebratory mood for the final match at the outdated Parkstadion, their home since 1973. However, Bayern only needed a point in Hamburg to claim the title, and most fans around the country expect a third successive title for 'FC Hollywood' Ã¢ÂÂ especially when Schalke went 2-0 down within the first half-hour against Unterhaching. They came back to level the scores by half-time, to regain some hope with Hamburg-Bayern still goalless. Schalke pushed for a goal to take the lead, but Jan SeifertÃ¢ÂÂs strike for Unterhaching put them 3-2 behind.
They needed to win their match and hope that Hamburg nicked three points. Joerg Bohme helped them do their bit: a quick-fire double put Schalke 4-3 up, before joint league top scorer Ebbe Sand put the game beyond doubt.
Unbelievably, part two of said miracle was realised 200 miles away, with Sergei BarbarezÃ¢ÂÂs brilliant 90th-minute header for Hamburg. Hitzfeld looked speechless, his bench slumped in despair, his team 1-0 down. If Hamburg could hold on, Schalke would win their first league title in 43 years on goal difference.
Bayern still needed a draw. SchalkeÃ¢ÂÂs game had finished, and the pitch filled with thousands of anxious yet excited supporters, watching the dying minutes of the Hamburg-Bayern game on the Parkstadion's big screen.
In the fourth and final minute of added time, Hamburg's former Schalke goalkeeper Mathias Schober picked up a backpass 10 yards outside his area. Up stepped Patrik Andersson, whose indirect free kick somehow deflected its way through a wall of Hamburg players.
The last kick of the game retained the title for Bayern, seen live by 60,000 back in Gelsenkirchen. Cue wild celebrations from Bayern players, many of whom had suffered their own last-minute agony two years before in the Champions League final defeat to Manchester United.
Schalke fans were openly sobbing, some in realisation and some in disbelief. The players watched on in the stands, sharing the disappointment with the ardent support. Meanwhile, up in the northern port city, Stefan Effenberg lifted the salad bowl for Bayern, confirming one of the most dramatic conclusions to any season.
In Schalke's situation, many would hide behind their grief, give their post-match interviews, woefully describe their disappointment and disappear for the summer feeling mightily sorry for themselves. Schalke general manager Rudi Assauer took a different route, addressing fans outside the ground after the game and rallying them to be proud of the team Ã¢ÂÂ not something you could envisage Sir Alex or 'Bobby Manc' doing if the situation gets as dramatic on May 13th.
Scant consolation for Schalke came with a 2-0 German Cup Final win over Union Berlin just seven days later, but a much coveted Bundesliga title has eluded them ever since, with another two second-placed finishes. Bayern immediately went on to win the Champions League with a penalty shoot-out victory over Valencia, and have won the league five times since, making a record 22 titles overall.
Looking back on the last two weekends of the 2000/01 Bundesliga campaign shows how football provides unrivalled glory, before regurgitating it as a heap of bile-ridden anguish. And repeat. A spectacular irrelevancy it may be, but the beast that is the beautiful game showed here what it is capable of, and hereÃ¢ÂÂs to hoping for some of the same a bit closer to home in the coming weeks. For us neutrals, anyway.