Seven nail-biting final-day deciders between rivals

Chelsea's Jesper Gronkjaer and Liverpool's Djimi Traore

FourFourTwo takes a look at seven of the most nail-biting final-day deciders between direct rivals in leagues around the world.

Chelsea vs Liverpool (2002-03)

The build-up to this final-day fixture at Stamford Bridge had it referred to as ‘the £20m match’, with the victors sealing a place in the lucrative Champions League. In hindsight, this tag hugely downplayed the financial importance: Chelsea were in financial trouble, with players likely to be sold to balance the books if they lost.

Liverpool, behind Chelsea on goal difference, knew that only a win at Stamford Bridge would do. When Sami Hyypia scored with a deftly flicked header in the 11th minute, it looked like they might get just that.

Marcel Desailly equalised almost immediately, however, before Jesper Gronkjaer became Chelsea’s hero with a curling effort into the bottom corner.

The sting in the tail came just a few weeks later with the news that Roman Abramovich, who rather fancied owning a Champions League football club, had decided to buy Chelsea.

Rather than having to sell to survive, they instead bought all of the players for all of the money, while Liverpool signed Anthony Le Tallec and Carl Medjani as the Houllier era stumbled into its final season.

Barcelona vs Atletico Madrid (2013-14)

Atletico, seeking their first La Liga title in 18 years, found themselves head-to-head on the final day with the only side that could deny them. Barcelona were three points behind Diego Simeone’s side, and knew that a win at the Camp Nou would do the trick.

For a while, it looked like they would get just that; Alexis Sanchez opened the scoring with a quite ludicrous strike from an acute angle. But Simeone had fashioned an obdurate, mentally strong side – and in the 49th minute, Diego Godin’s header drew them level.

Cue 40-plus minutes of resolute Atletico defending, the requisite keeper [Jose Manuel Pinto] coming up for a corner in a desperate attempt to win the game – and Atletico getting the result they required to become the first side in a decade to break the Real Madrid and Barcelona duopoly.

Manchester City vs Luton (1982-83)

Manchester City required a draw against Luton Town at Maine Road on a glorious May day to preserve their top-division status for an 18th successive year. What could possibly go wrong? Only a club with a long and distinguished record of shooting themselves in the foot need have worried. Oh.

The home side put Luton under early pressure, which allowed Town’s keeper Tony Godden’s strong look [green top, blue shorts and orange socks] to get some well-deserved exposure. In truth, though, Luton were the better side throughout, peppering the City goal time and again.

It took until the 85th minute for them to make the breakthrough, however, with substitute Raddy Antic volleying home from the edge of the box to break City hearts and see David Pleat indulge history’s foremost example of a pitch invasion/dad dance crossover.

Arsenal vs Liverpool (1988-89)

The most famous of the lot. A 3-1 defeat at Old Trafford saw Liverpool fall nine points behind George Graham’s Arsenal side on New Year’s Day, 1989. Yet Kenny Dalglish’s men kicked into gear in the second half of the season, topping the First Division table for the first time in mid-May.

This fixture had originally been scheduled for April 23, but following the Hillsborough disaster on April 15, it was understandably postponed. This lead to the match being pushed back to May 26, after the FA Cup final, and became one of the only final-day title deciders in English football history.

All Liverpool needed to do was avoid a two-goal defeat at Anfield against Arsenal on Friday, 26 May 1989. For a title-winning machine like Liverpool, this appeared straightforward. But if the words “It’s up for grabs now” and the name ‘Michael Thomas’ mean anything to you, you’ll know it didn’t quite work out that way.

It was 0-0 at half-time with few chances, but Arsenal grabbed one just seven minutes into the second half, an Alan Smith header making it 1-0. That’s the way it stayed until the clock ticked past 90 minutes and into injury time. And then…

Sheffield United vs Wigan (2006-07)

Going into the final round of Premier League fixtures, Paul Jewell’s Wigan found themselves in dire trouble: three points behind their relegation rivals, West Ham and Sheffield United. They would end the season with a winner-takes-all or draw-will-do for Neil Warnock’s Blades] clash away at Bramall Lane.

It started well for Wigan as Paul Scharner’s strike put them 1-0 up inside 15 minutes, only for a Jon Stead header to level matters for Sheffield United on 38 minutes.

Yet a David Unsworth penalty gave Wigan the lead again in the second half, and they held out for 40 nervy minutes to retain their top-flight place and almost kill the Soccer Saturday boys under the weight of their own banter in the process.

Sheffield United could still have survived, but Carlos Tevez gave West Ham an improbable 1-0 win at Old Trafford. Neil Warnock, rather than looking at his own side’s performances over a 38-game season, knew precisely who to blame: Rafa Benitez. The Liverpool boss had previously fielded a weakened side against Fulham, as he prepared his side for a Champions League final.

It’s OK though, Neil is not bitter and hardly ever mentions it in virtually every interview he has done since, no matter how spurious the link.

Bayern Munich vs Schalke (1971-72)

Bayern were just a point ahead of Schalke before their final-day showdown, and as such needed only a draw in what would be the first competitive match at their shiny new Olympiastadion filled with 80,000 supporters.

They did slightly better than that though, seeing off Schalke’s early pressure before Gerd Muller [whose 40 goals that season remains a Bundesliga record], Franz Beckenbauer & Co. demolished their rivals 5-1 to ensure the Bundesliga title.

Along the way, they scored 101 goals and recorded an astonishing 55 points from 34 games [it was the days of two points for a win, so this is also a record which still stands today].

Hereford vs Brighton (1996-97)

As Brighton prepare for their first season in the top flight since 1983, it’s worth remembering that it’s just 20 years since the club’s lowest ebb. Brighton’s owners had agreed the controversial sale of the club’s Goldstone Ground, leaving Albion homeless.

Also, if they failed to pick up a point from their final Division Three game of the season away against Hereford United, they would drop out of the Football League. The very future of the club seemed at stake. If Brighton got the draw, it would be their opponents that were relegated.

Hereford made the early running, taking the lead on 21 minutes through a desperate own goal from Brighton’s Kerry Mayo. The home side continue to press at 1-0 up, even having a couple of penalty shouts waved away.

However, the gods were with Brighton, as they snatched a dramatic second-half equaliser through Robbie Reinelt. There was still time for Hereford’s Adrian Foster to fluff his lines when he was through on goal, but Brighton survived. In more ways than one.