When the title race goes down to the wire
A dramatic Premier League season which has been headlined by the battle for the championship between Manchester City and Manchester United could reach its zenith on Monday, when the city rivals meet at the Etihad Stadium in a match which may play a major part in finally deciding the destination of the title.
Although City dominated the early stages of the campaign, racing ahead at the summit following their 6-1 humiliation of the Red Devils at Old Trafford in October, United capitalised on several stumbles from Roberto Mancini’s men in recent weeks to secure an eight-point advantage and seemingly ensure a record 20th league triumph.
But a shock defeat at Wigan Athletic and a slip in concentration which allowed visitors Everton to recover from two goals behind and draw 4-4 last weekend has “given City the initiative” according to United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who added of Monday’s clash: “It's a big game... it's always been a derby game of the highest proportions and this won't be any different.”
Such a finale is no different for English football either, which has featured several nail-biting conclusions, many involving Ferguson, during its considerable history. Whatever the outcome on Monday, the 2011/12 season is sure to join the list of great endings which FIFA.com now remembers.
Thomas breaks Red hearts
While City and United will still have a chance to change the course of their season after Monday’s match, the 1988/89 campaign ended with a title decider in the truest sense of the phrase. After a tumultuous six weeks which began with the trauma of Hillsborough and also included an emotional FA Cup final victory over neighbours Everton, Liverpool topped the table by three points going into their last fixture, at home to Arsenal.
However, it just so happened that the second-placed Gunners were the only remaining obstacle to the Reds claiming their 18th championship and completing the double. George Graham’s team were considered overwhelming underdogs, but a win by at least two clear goals would be enough to deny Liverpool and hand Arsenal the title at Anfield.
With the match goalless at the break, the hosts were 45 minutes away from glory, but it was all part of Graham’s unorthodox plan. As was an early second-half goal, headed in by Alan Smith seven minutes into the second period to unsettle the leaders. Although the Reds could not find an equaliser, Arsenal failed to extend their advantage either, and the trophy seemed to be remaining on Merseyside.
But as the game entered stoppage time, a long ball forward was flicked on by Smith into the path of onrushing midfielder Michael Thomas - who kept his nerve, despite having missed an earlier opportunity - to beat Bruce Grobbelaar and seal an historic victory. Arsenal were champions by virtue of goals scored and received applause from Liverpool fans, who would watch Thomas play on a regular basis after the club signed the English international two years later.
Delayed delight for Derby
Derby County were struggling along in the second tier of English football when the club made one of the most crucial decisions of its history in 1967. A smart, young manager by the name of Brian Clough, along with his number two Peter Taylor, was hired and five years later the Midlands side were crowned First Division champions - a feat they had never previously accomplished. It proved to be one of the closest climaxes of all time.
Clough’s team had been involved in a season-long battle with three other teams at the top of the table - Leeds United, Liverpool and Manchester City. A 1-0 victory over Liverpool at the Baseball Ground in their final game gave the Rams a one-point cushion over the chasing pack, but both Leeds and the Reds had one more match to play. A draw for the former would be enough, while Liverpool would be champions with a win if Don Revie’s side failed to get the required point.
With their destiny not in their own hands, Clough sent his players on holiday to Mallorca and enjoyed a break with his family. He could not resist listening to updates on the radio, though, and the news was good for Derby. Leeds were beaten at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Liverpool could only muster a draw from their trip to Arsenal, handing both Clough and Derby their first top-flight championship.
The 1946/47 season finished in a similarly unorthodox fashion, with Liverpool the beneficiaries of results going in their favour on that occasion. The Reds had seen off the challenge of title rivals Wolves with an end-of-season victory at Molineux, but their advantage would be eradicated if Stoke City could overcome Sheffield United two weeks later. The Potters suffered a 2-1 reverse, though, and Liverpool won their fifth title by a single point.
United pegged back
United supporters will be hoping that history does not repeat itself this year. Although the Red Devils have been crowned kings of England more than any other team, they have been on the wrong end of a tight conclusion several times too in recent years. Champions for the first two editions of the newly-formed Premier League in 1993 and 1994, their dominance was challenged first by the spending power of Blackburn Rovers and later the technical quality of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal.
Rovers, guided by manager Kenny Dalglish and fired by the goals of strike duo Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, led the league for much of the 1994/95 season but reigning champions United - trailing by two points but with a better goal difference - were still in contention on the final day. Both sides were away from home, the leaders at Dalglish’s former club Liverpool and Ferguson’s side at West Ham United.
Shearer’s goal on 20 minutes settled Rovers’ nerves, but John Barnes equalised midway through the second half. Meanwhile, at Upton Park, United had recovered from an early deficit and were also drawing 1-1. A winning goal would deny Blackburn, but the visitors were frustrated time and again by a dogged Hammers defence and found no way through. Jamie Redknapp’s last-minute free-kick defeated Blackburn, but it did not matter: Rovers were champions.
United responded with back-to-back titles, but were again beaten by a nose in 1997/98, despite holding an 11-point advantage over Arsenal as late as March. The Gunners, in Wenger’s first full campaign at the helm, produced a remarkable run of form, peaking with a 1-0 triumph at Old Trafford courtesy of a goal from Marc Overmars, and culminated with title celebrations following a 4-0 final-day victory at home to Everton.