Forgive the hyperbolic title, but in these days of overreaction, over-exaggeration and general over-egging of everything that happens in the often-surreal bubble that is the EPL, it seems appropriate. It could also be the truth. At the start of the festive period (in football terms, not supermarket ones…) a win for Manchester City against Liverpool looked like it would almost put an end to the title race as a spectacle. As it happened, their hard foughhard-foughtnts keeps it alive. We will look a little closer at what is certainly gearing up to be a classic season at the top and delve into the archives at some dramatic top-flight title races of years gone by.
Three Horse Race
It would not have just been Arsenal fans cheering on Guardiola’s men on an atmospheric—and often taut—evening at the Etihad. Almost from nowhere, Liverpool had taken the title race by the scruff of its neck and looked both unstoppable and unbeatable. On the night, City defended well and deserved the win. However, let us not forget that twice, but for the width of a centimetre (Mane’s shot and Stones’ clearance) and the fact that Kompany was fortunate not to see red, it could all have been a different story and result.
We should also not forget that, although the majority of talk and focus is around the North West, Tottenham could well have a say in events—and not simply with respect to which of the aforementioned teams is ultimately successful. Too often they have been cast as the bridesmaid, not the bride, and have (unfortunately for their fans) just as often been happy to play that role. There is no doubt that they have the team to compete with City and Klopp’s Liverpool; it is just the squad and its lack of depth that could prevent them from going all the way. Their presence, though, and the very real threat that they pose, does make this on paper—at least at the start of January—one of the best title races ever.
As with any comparison, this needs to be looked at in context. The debate about the relative merits of the various European Leagues will rage on, but there is little doubt that those at the top of the EPL would be competing at the top of any league in the world. The Champions League odds show that Man City are favourites. Spurs and Liverpool are also in the mix. That would not have been the case in many other years. These are genuinely three football heavyweights at the very top of their games fighting it out for the ultimate domestic trophy. In terms of excitement, though, how does it compare with previous title races?
Six of the Best
They generally fall into two categories. Those where one team seemingly has it in the bag, only for them to fall at the final hurdle due to a combination of stage fright, stumbling at the final hurdle (literally, in the case of Steven Gerrard and Liverpool in 2014), or a resurgent and dominant performance by their rivals. The other category is where it goes to the wire in a season where it has always been nip and tuck. Only very rarely are three teams genuinely in contention down the home straight, and that is why this year could well be one of the best yet.
The seasons of 1997/’98 and 1995/’96 sit squarely in the first category. In March 1998, Manchester United stood 12 points clear of Wenger’s Gunners. In the end, the North Londoners won with two games left to play. A similar state of affairs happened two seasons prior, when Fergusson this time experienced the other side of the coin—his United side overturning a 12-point gap to Newcastle and an increasingly-emotional Kevin Keagan.
Ipswich Town, who many new to the game may not even realise were heralded as one of the greatest European teams of a generation not too long ago, looked on course for what would be a league and European double in 1980/’81. Unfortunately for Bobby Robson and his men, brutal fixture congestion—caused by their continental exploits—along with a paper-thin squad meant that they clutched defeat (or second spot) from the jaws of victory, handing the title to Aston Villa. The Suffolk side did win the UEFA Cup that year, but it was the closest the legendary manager would get to lifting the English League Title.
For late drama, we thought that the televised (which was unusual and almost unprecedented at the time, do not forget) title-decider between Liverpool and Arsenal in 1989 would be hard to beat. The season of 2011/’12 did just that, though. It almost reads like a Hollywood script, with noisy neighbours City usurping their bitter rivals in the last seconds to take their first title for three and a half decades. I defy anyone (excluding Manchester United fans, of course) to watch Aguero’s last-gasp winner, complete with Martin Tyler’s scream in the background, and not get goose bumps.
This season has a lot to live up to. The fact that we are speaking about a title race at all, when few people predicted anything other than a City stroll back in the summer, is good in and of itself. To expect it to go down to the last couple of weekends, with all three still in contention, would be considered greedy. But dreams—even if they occasionally transform themselves into nightmares—is what this game is all about. I, for one, cannot wait.