Liverpool beware! Top slumps: title chases gone wrong
UEFA.com gasps in horror as it recalls some sides who threw league championships away.
Ajax (Netherlands, 2015/16)
Level on points with PSV but ahead on goal difference, leaders Ajax went into their last remaining fixture at second-bottom De Graafschap needing a win to secure their fifth crown under coach Frank de Boer. However, despite going 1-0 up inside 16 minutes via Amin Younes’s strike, the Amsterdam giants could only draw 1-1 against the 17th-placed outfit to hand the title to their arch-rivals, 3-1 winners at Zwolle. “This is a bad, terrible dream – we’ve failed to bring the title home,” said crestfallen coach De Boer.
CSKA Sofia (Bulgaria, 2014/15)
Top of the table at Christmas, CSKA Sofia’s loss of ten-goal Sergiu Buș to English side Sheffield Wednesday in the winter break prompted a catastrophic run of ten straight league games without scoring, and a dip to fifth place in the final standings. “You cannot win if you don’t score,” said Luboslav Penev – the Army Men’s third coach of the spring following the departures of Stoycho Mladenov and Galin Ivanov. Worse followed as the club were relegated to the third tier at the end of the season for financial problems.
AZ Alkmaar (Netherlands, 2006/07)
AZ had closed a seven-point gap to go level with PSV Eindhoven and Ajax on the last day of the 2006/07 campaign, with the Cheeseheads knowing a win at 16th-ranked Excelsior would hand them the title. However, goalkeeper Boy Waterman’s early dismissal prompted a 3-2 reverse, PSV eventually clinching the crown by a single goal – though they received a replica of the trophy, the real one having been taken to Rotterdam in the likelihood of an AZ triumph. “It was very quiet for a long, long time in our dressing room,” AZ’s Simon Cziommer said.
Real Madrid (Spain, 2003/04)
“We cannot afford another year like this,” said Madrid president Florentino Pérez, having dismissed coach Carlos Queiroz as 2003/04 came to a gloomy conclusion. “Our work ethic, effort and dreams have to be bigger than our disappointments.” Queiroz had replaced Vicente del Bosque, and his side were eight points clear after 26 matches. However, a Copa del Rey final defeat prompted a phenomenal collapse, Madrid losing seven of their final ten Liga games – including the last five – to finish seven points short of champions Valencia in fourth.
Throttúr (Iceland, 2003)
The short Icelandic season can make for some dramatic turns of events, and arguably no side in Iceland – or anywhere else in Europe – experienced highs and lows quite like promoted Throttúr in 2003. At the midway point of the campaign, the Reykjavik team had won six of their nine fixtures and topped the table. Their fall was to be as dramatic as their rise, though; in their final nine matches, they registered just one victory and one draw, sunk to ninth place and were relegated.
Internazionale Milano (Italy, 2001/02)
Héctor Cúper’s Inter led Juventus by six points with five games to play in the 2001/02 campaign, yet wobbled in the closing straight. Left requiring victory against Lazio on the last day of term to claim the crown, the Nerazzurri lost 4-2, with Juventus’s 2-0 success over Udinese scooping them the Scudetto. Footage of Inter’s Ronaldo in floods of tears in Rome has come to define the occasion. “In a matter of moments our dreams vanished,” the Brazilian said, “overtaken by reality, which seemed even harder to believe.”
Shelbourne (Republic of Ireland, 2000/01)
“We can forget about winning the league now,” said then Bohemians manager Roddy Collins as his troops trailed Shelbourne by eight points with eight games to go in 2000/01. However, with the Irish government suspending all sporting activities for four weeks while the nation dealt with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease in the local cattle population, Shels’ flow was interrupted; they won only three of their remaining fixtures, Bohs triumphing seven times to pinch the crown. “The table never lies,” said a distraught Shelbourne boss Dermot Keely.
Legia Warszawa (Poland, 1996/97)
“For us, it was like a death in the family – so awful, so tragic,” said striker Marcin Mięciel of Legia’s ill-fated title decider. Needing a win against Ekstraklasa leaders Widzew Łódź to take the crown, Legia were 2-0 up in Warsaw when an injury to the referee interrupted play on 85 minutes. When the match restarted, Widzew scored twice and Legia had a goal disallowed for offside before Widzew made it 3-2. “I still have the video of the game but I have never been able to watch it,” noted Mięciel.
Newcastle United (England, 1995/96)
Sir Alex Ferguson’s suggestion that other Premier League teams tried harder against his Manchester United side than they did against leaders Newcastle hastened the decline of Kevin Keegan’s Magpies. “I will love it if we beat them – love it,” the manager railed in a famous post-match interview. However, Newcastle’s hopes of a first English championship since 1927 were already fading; 12 points clear of United in January, they ended up finishing four points adrift of their rivals in second.
Heart of Midlothian (Scotland, 1985/86)
Unbeaten in 27 matches, the Edinburgh club entered the last day of the season knowing a point at Dundee would seal their first title since 1960, with second-placed Celtic needing a four-goal swing to have any chance of the championship. Disaster struck: Celtic won 5-0 at Saint Mirren while Hoops fan Albert Kidd came off the bench to score twice in a 2-0 success for Dundee. Expecting the worst, Celtic had brought a single bottle of champagne with them to Paisley. Hearts then lost to Aberdeen in the cup final, completing Scotland’s most infamous collapse.
AEK Athens (Greece, 1959/60)
AEK reportedly lost their focus on the eve of the final matchday of the inaugural Greek league season. Two points above second-placed Panathinaikos – in the days of two points for a draw – they spent the night before their decider with Panionios frolicking in their hotel, playing games and having a water fight. An ensuing 3-2 defeat combined with the Greens’ shock 4-1 victory at Olympiacos meant the championship would be decided by a play-off. AEK took the lead but, despite being reduced to ten men, Panathinaikos hit back to prevail 2-1.
Stade de Reims (France, 1955/56)
Champions Reims – then dubbed ‘Le Grand Reims’ (the great Reims) – were on course for their fourth French title in 1955/56, reaching the halfway stage level on points with Nice. However, while the Riviera outfit kept plugging away, Reims came unstuck, losing ten of their remaining 17 matches to end up tenth in the table. The reason? The club’s directors turned their focus to the inaugural European Champion Clubs’ Cup: Reims went down 4-3 to Real Madrid in the final.