When Manchester United take on Everton at Goodison Park on Sunday, a lot will be on the line.
Elimination from the Champions League in the quarter-finals at the hands of Barcelona, and being dumped from the FA Cup in the quarter-finals at the hands of Wolves, means the Premier League is the only competition with the club’s focus going into the Easter weekend.
United’s Champions League hopes hang in the balance, and this is a fixture which has previously tripped them up in title challenges.
A February defeat at Goodison in 2010 played its part in United missing out on the title by a single point (and, worse still, convinced Alex Ferguson of David Moyes’ suitability to succeed him at Old Trafford), but there was an even more damaging result at home to the same opposition two years later, with United throwing away 3-1 and 4-2 leads to hand Manchester City the initiative in the title race.
It was a classic example of a title challenger choking at a crucial moment, but how does it compare to some other classics of the genre?
Newcastle United 1995-96
This is the go-to for any suggestion of the pressure of a title-chase getting to a team – well, at the very least, getting to their manager. Newcastle’s lead in the 1995-96 season was 12 points at its most devastating, but the biggest mistake they made was looking at the table and thinking success was possible.
Everyone will identify a single moment as the catalyst for the Magpies’ collapse: the signing of Tino Asprilla which unbalanced the team is a lot of people’s favourite, but the counterpoint to that comes with title challengers Tottenham’s failure to add such reinforcements in 2012 and falling away through a lack of spark – it’s patently different for every team.
Kevin Keegan’s “I’d love it” speech is another which people will pick out, though there might be a sense of revisionism – had they clung on against the fast-chasing Manchester United, it would be considered a moment of greatness.
Then, of course, we have the two defeats: not the 1-0 reverse at home to United in March, though a win in that game would have sealed the deal, but rather the late reverses at Liverpool and Blackburn. Both times they led, and both times they lost, the latter via an extremely painful (but less commentary-friendly) double from Tyne & Wear-born Graham Fenton. Jesus Christ indeed.
Manchester United 1997-98
United might have hauled back their rivals in 1996, but two years later they found themselves on the other side of things. It wasn’t quite as dramatic a slide, but it was made more notable by the fact that it came from a team coming off back-to-back titles, with the rivals the ones who ought to have felt the pressure more.
In mid-January 1998, United were 13 points clear of Arsenal, and by the start of March the Gunners were 12 points behind, but with three games in hand. The comeback was achievable, but required some nerve-holding from the team without a title since Division One had become the Premier League. It was always considered preferable to have points on the board than a chance to chase, but the 1997-98 season tested out such a theory.
After 13 months without back-to-back defeats, United weren’t supposed to lose three of four around the turn of the year.
Then, later in the campaign, there was another quick barrage of punches. Sheffield Wednesday dazed United with a 2-0 win at Hillsborough, West Ham damaged them as they clambered back up via a 1-1 draw, and Arsenal delivered the killer blow with a 1-0 win at Old Trafford which put the Gunners’ fate in their own hands.
From there on out, they took no prisoners, leaving United in the dust with a 10-game winning run, but things could have been so different if United had been able to cut them off at the source.
Manchester United 2011-12
If United’s 1998 collapse saw them laid low by a chicken bone before a too-late Heimlich manoeuvre, 14 years later we witnessed them suffer after trying to cram a full steak down their throats at once.
With six games left in the 2011-12 season, the Red Devils were eight points clear of Manchester City, an early European exit allowing them to focus on league football and win eight straight games; four either side of Athletic Club knocking them out of the Europa League.
City had exited the same UEFA competition at the same stage, but Luke Moore’s winner for Swansea and Mikel Arteta’s late strike for Arsenal seemed to have put the title beyond their grasp. United had taken the role of 1997-98 Arsenal, and City had seemingly left themselves with too much to do and too little time in which to do it – even a victory in the Manchester Derby wouldn’t have been enough without United dropping a further five points from a welcoming set of fixtures: none of their five other opponents was higher than seventh in the league.
Wigan’s victory through a Shaun Maloney curler was the first shock, but United looked to have put that behind them when they swatted Aston Villa aside by four goals to nil and took a 4-2 lead into the final eight minutes of their match against Everton.
Nikica Jelavić capitalised on some sleepy defending to halve the deficit, before Steven Pienaar stole in unmarked to level. After that point, City refused to blink until the final day. After that… well, we all know what happened.
Liverpool and Chelsea 2013-14
When we look at the 2013-14 campaign, we often turn to the Gerrard slip and Crystanbul as evidence of Liverpool letting the pressure get to them. However, they weren’t the only ones.
In truth, Liverpool had only played themselves into contention through the panic of others. Yes, a win over a depleted Chelsea side would have surely given the Reds the title, but they needed an 11-game winning run to even get into that position.
A month earlier, Chelsea had temporarily gone seven points clear with a 4-0 demolition of 10-man Spurs, though Liverpool, Arsenal and Manchester City all had games in hand.
Seven of their final nine games were against teams in the bottom half of the table, with the other two against Arsenal at home and Liverpool away. That they beat the two top-four opponents and still ended up finishing third gives you an idea of how dramatic and unlikely their eventual collapse was.
Choking is often condensed into the games against a team’s nearest rivals, but José Mourinho has rarely struggled to motivate his teams for such occasions, and so it proved with a 6-0 win over Arsenal and that two-goal victory at Anfield.
It’s also characterised by an element of self-destruction, and the Blues had that in spades.
Two players saw red in a defeat to an Aston Villa side which would lose 10 of their final 15 games, before they went down to struggling Crystal Palace after John Terry headed past his own goalkeeper.
The trifecta was completed against a seemingly dead-in-the-water Sunderland side, who were going into the game with just two points from their previous nine games. Chelsea even took the lead in that one, only for the visitors’ comeback to be completed by Fabio Borini, a man who left Stamford Bridge for less than £1m just three years prior.
So yes, bring up the Gerrard slip all you want, but Chelsea’s self-destruction was a wonderfully collective effort. It takes a lot for so many component parts to come together in self-sabotage, and this collapse deserves more of your attention.