1. Real Madrid (2003/04)
The Galacticos era at Real Madrid was characterised by the kind of approach to squad-building you’d expect from a teenager with cheat codes for a video game. But when the wheels came off their title defence in 2004, it was as if said teenager had gotten bored with winning too easily and simply wandered off.
Madrid had the kind of side you’d normally only see in a Pepsi advert - full of proven winners including Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham and Original Ronaldo. With 12 games to go, they’d opened up a 12-point lead on second-placed Deportivo La Coruna, with Rafa Benitez’s Valencia even further behind. The double looked likely.
The stutter started in March for Carlos Queiroz’s defending champions. They took just two points from their first three games and lost the Copa del Rey final in extra time to Real Zaragoza. That seemed to be the trigger for an astonishing collapse: Madrid lost seven of their last 10 league games, including their last five in a row, as they slumped to fourth. Valencia won the title by five points.
2. Shelbourne (2000/01)
Managers are experts at the well-considered excuse. Whether it’s scheduling, injuries, or refereeing bias – when their teams struggle, there’s always a handy scapegoat. In 2001, Shelbourne boss Dermot Keely could point the finger of blame firmly at actual goats (and other assorted livestock).
His side were eight points clear with eight games to go in that year's Irish Premier Division, and chasing side Bohemians had already given up the fight. “We can forget about winning the league now,” said their manager Roddy Collins before the run-in. That is, until an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the local cattle population led to the government suspending all sporting activity for four weeks.
When play resumed, Shelbourne were a shadow of their former selves. They won just three of their remaining games, while Bohemians won seven of theirs to take the title by a nose.
3. Newcastle (1995/96)
From foot and mouth to foot in mouth. Post-match interviews can be a bit of a minefield – just ask David Moyes. For Kevin Keegan, one famous outburst has come to define his managerial career. At the midway point of the 1995/96 Premier League season, his Newcastle side had opened up a 10-point lead over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United with an entertaining brand of attacking football.
A 2-0 defeat at Old Trafford proved a turning point, though - and Ferguson (later knighted for services to mind games) began sticking the needle in on behalf of his young side as they closed the gap. A suggestion that certain clubs might not try as hard against Newcastle as they did against Manchester United really irked Keegan, who exploded in a post-match interview that we’re pretty sure is never more than 30 minutes away from being screened on Sky Sports.
“I will love it if we beat them - love it,” he ranted. But Newcastle’s first title in 70 years was already slipping away. In an eight game run between February and April, they lost five times - including a legendary 4-3 defeat to Liverpool which we’re pretty sure has its own Sky Sports channel. Meanwhile, United won 13 of their last 15 games to consign Newcastle to second, four points behind their rivals.
4. Manchester United (1997/98)
United suffered their own agonising capitulation a couple of years later, to an Arsenal side revitalised under Arsene Wenger. Ferguson’s side were 11 points clear going into April, and looked set to win a third straight title.
But their title challenge hit the rocks in March as a run of five games without a win saw them crash out of the Champions League to Monaco, and allowed Arsenal to gain ground in the title race. Wenger’s side – full of grit and character – finished like a steam train, winning 10 league games in a row to overhaul United with four games to go, then sealing the Double with a Wembley win over Newcastle.
5. Inter (2001/02)
There were some stellar names on both sides of Serie A’s nail-biting climax in 2001/02. In the driving seat were Hector Cuper’s Inter Milan, featuring Javier Zanetti, Clarence Seedorf, Christian Vieri and Ronaldo among others. They’d built up a six-point lead with five games to go, but were being chased down by an equally illustrious Juventus side that boasted David Trezeguet, Pavel Nedved and Alessandro Del Piero.
We’d never pegged Ronaldo for a poet, but he struck a poignant tone as the Turin side overhauled Inter on the last day of the season. “In a matter of moments our dreams vanished, overtaken by reality, which seemed even harder to believe,” he said.
In truth, Cuper’s side hadn’t done too much wrong in those last five games. They lost to Atalanta, but beat Brescia 2-1 at home (Ronaldo got a brace, while Pep Guardiola scored a penalty for the visitors) before drawing away with Chievo. But Juventus kept the pressure on with a timely winning run. On the last day of the season, Inter needed to beat Lazio, but they lost 4-2 and slipped to third. Juve beat Udinese - their sixth win in a row - to take the title.
6. Throttur (2003)
Who can forget this famous collapse from the Icelandic top flight? (Shame on you.) At the midway point of an 18-game season, newly promoted Throttur, from the capital Reykjavik, were top of the table with six wins from nine games.
The team, a multi-sport club most famous for their volleyball prowess, dropped the ball on this occasion – they took just four points from their last nine games and were relegated.
We’ve got bad news for those hoping for a similar reversal in fortunes for Chelsea this season: even if the Blues lose all their games, the lowest they can finish is ninth, which is still one place better than last season.
7. Chelsea (2013/14)
Some good news and bad news for fans of Spurs, Manchester City and Liverpool here. The good news is that the team on top of the table after 29 games has been caught on several occasions. In 1997/98 as detailed above, but also more recently. In fact, it happened to Chelsea just a few years ago.
In 2013/14, the Blues were nine points clear of fourth-placed Man City, who won their last five games under Manuel Pellegrini to snatch the title. Chelsea, meanwhile, were undone by surprise losses to Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland in their last nine matches - but could extract some cold comfort in beating Liverpool at the end of April to derail City’s other title challenger.
The bad news is that the chasing teams in 1997/98 and 2013/14 had games in hand – City had three of them – which the chasing pack this season do not. Taking that into account, no one has ever overturned a seven-point deficit in the Premier League with nine games to go. The biggest successful reversal this late on – without games in hand – belongs to serial chasers Manchester United, who overturned Arsenal’s five-point lead in 2002/03.
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