The English Premier League is the most watched league in the world, more so in the recent years. The extensive media coverage and marketing of English football in all parts of the world, coupled with the constant duopoly of Barcelona and Read Madrid in the La Liga and the ‘boring’ tactical nature of Serie A, has contributed to the soaring popularity of the Barclays Premier League; however, the intensity of the league has increased with every passing year, with the Big Four monopoly being close to broken by other teams on countless occasions before Everton and Tottenham displaced Liverpool in 2004-05 and 2009-10 season respectively, and this trend could continue with Manchester City entering the fray. The battle for pole position has been a constant tussle between Chelsea and Manchester United since 2003-04, with Arsenal and Liverpool threatening to usurp the throne but fizzling towards the end. Till date, only four teams have won the coveted title – Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Blackburn Rovers; Newcastle and Liverpool nearly tasted success but had to be content with a second place spot. TheHardTackle lists down the five closest title chases in the English Premier League since its inception in 1992, in chronological order.

1994-95 Season

Top Four: Blackburn Rovers(89), Manchester United(88),Nottingham Forest(77), Liverpool(74)

The Kenny Dalglish-led Rovers tasted their first trophy success since 1913 in a season marred by controversies, as they pipped Manchester United by a single point on the last day of the season to better the second spot achieved last season. Manchester United had already won the first two seasons since 1992 under Scot Alex Ferguson, and were threatening to run away with a third. However, the Rovers marched on towards the title, riding on Alan Shearer’s imperious goal scoring form in the season; the striker netted 34 goals, his highest return for the team. They matched Manchester United in all the departments, including the transfer market; Dalglish signed Chris Sutton for a record 5 million pounds from Norwich City, before Ferguson came one up by bringing in Andy Cole from Newcastle for 6 million pounds and Keith Gillespie in return.

King Kenny – successful at Blackburn

The Rovers were in the lead till the final day of the season, standing at 89 points, two ahead of the Red Devils. Their game against Liverpool was scheduled at the same United’s game against West Ham, and United had to win this game and get through on goal difference should the Rovers draw. Kenny Dalglish’s dreams of leading the side to glory threatened to disintegrate, as he saw his club lose 2-1 to his former side; however, the Old Trafford side failed to capitalize on this stroke of fortune, mustering only a meager 1-1 draw against the Hammers. Dalglish and his men had believed that all was gone after conceding the lead to Liverpool, but the news of Blackburn being champions reached their ears in the final minutes of the game, and both the players and Liverpool fans celebrated the occasion. The title win for Blackburn Rovers ended an 81-year trophy drought and cemented Dalglish’s legendary status in Premier League history.

1997-98 Season

Top Four: Arsenal(78), Manchester United(77),Liverpool(65), Chelsea(63)

The season will be famously remembered for the arrival of Arsene Wenger in the Premier League; the tall lanky Frenchman, who replaced Bruce Rioch in 1996 a few weeks after the League started, brought in talented players like Marc Overmars, Emmanuel Petit and Nicolas Anelka, while retaining the services of the famed Arsenal backline that George Graham moulded; in his first full season at the helm, he led an inspired Arsenal side to their first FA Premier League title win, as Manchester United blew away a 11-point lead at the top in March to hand the Gunners a lifeline.

Cometh the hour, cometh the Frenchman

The previous season marked the start of the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal, with Ferguson playing his mind games on the Frenchman. The Scot has quoted about Arsene:

“He’s a novice – he should keep his opinions to Japanese football

Even before the season started, the two great managers had clearly identified each other as their biggest threat, and the entire season was all about their respective teams, with Liverpool and Chelsea far behind in the title chase. At mid season, Ferguson seemed to be enjoying the upper hand as Arsenal were losing steam in their pursuit of the title; a 3-1 loss to Blackburn at Highbury in December even prompted Wenger to hold a crisis meeting with his players, which seemed to have paid dividends as the second half of the season proceeded.

Meanwhile, the Red Devils had established a seemingly unassailable stranglehold on pole position with ten games to go, and looked like running away with their fifth premier league title. However, a shock 2-0 loss to Sheffield Wednesday triggered a slump in form for the Old Trafford outfit, while Arsenal embarked on a run of successive victories in their last ten games, which included the deciding victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford via an Emmanuel Petit goal; the 4-0 thrashing of Everton at home was a red letter day for the London club, as they clinched their first title since 1989. In a span of four months, the tide had turned against Ferguson’s side and seen Arsenal’s determination and talent carry them to their first ever trophy win under Wenger, who became the first foreign manager to win the league. After having seen the Frenchman get the better of him, Ferguson vowed to regain the title next season.

1998-99 Season

Top Four: Manchester United(79),Arsenal(78), Chelsea(75),Leeds United(67)

Alex Ferguson made his intentions of winning the season clear with a clutch of signings, which included Jaap Stam, Dwight Yorke and Jesper Blomqvist, while Wenger stuck to his formula of attacking football and a mean defense marshaled by Tony Adams. Both the teams were once again the frontrunners of the trophy, with Chelsea now keeping up with them. Gianfranco Zola had his best season for the Blues, scoring 13 goals and contributing a number of vital assists to keep his side within touching distance of the coveted trophy. However, they failed to grab all three points in their games against the title contenders, and had to settle for third spot.

Ferguson wins the battle this time

At one stage in the league, Arsenal looked like they would do an encore of last season, as their miserly defense leaked only 17 goals this season and their attacking outlets were finding the back of the net frequently. Their 3-1 away victory over bitter rivals Tottenham edged them closer to pole position in the premier league table, and they had the same tally and goal difference as Ferguson’s side with two games to go. However, they were brought crashing to earth in the penultimate game of the season against Leeds United, as Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink scored the only goal of the match in the 87th minute. Manchester United had grabbed a point against Blackburn Rovers at this stage, and went to the last game with a point ahead of the Gunners. A win for the Red Devils in the last game, against Arsenal’s rival Tottenham, rendered Arsenal’s 1-0 victory over Aston Villa meaningless and brought Ferguson his fifth league title. The season saw the blossoming of the strike partnership of Yorke and Cole, and the Old Trafford went unbeaten for 33 games from their boxing day fixture to the end of the season, becoming the first English club to win the historic treble of the domestic league, FA Cup and European Cup.

2007-08 Season

Top Four: Manchester United(87), Chelsea(85), Arsenal(83),Liverpool(76)

This season evokes painful memories for Arsenal fans, as they saw their team fritter away a glorious chance to clinch a trophy since the FA Cup in 2005 in an away game against Birmingham. Prior to this unfortunate game, the Gunners were riding high on Fabregas’ partnership with Flamini, Hleb and Adebayor, making the loss of Thierry Henry to Barcelona hardly felt; by the start of 2008, the Gunners were in a strong position in the table, and were looking in ominous form with Adebayor plundering crucial goals. Then came the fixture against Birmingham, and a rash tackle by Taylor broke Eduardo’s ankle and traumatized the Arsenal players who had witnessed the horrifying incident on the field; when Clichy conceded a penalty in the dying minutes of the game, captain William Gallas threw a fit on the field and failed to lead by example, shattering the morale of the team. While they managed to keep the pressure on Manchester United, their loss to the Red Devils in April made it a two-horse title race between Manchester United and Chelsea.

Manchester United and Chelsea got off to a slower start than the Gunners, but picked up tempo post Christmas. With Arsenal still reeling from the after effects of the Birmingham game, they soldiered on towards the title, grabbing crucial points in important games. The United axis of Rooney-Tevez-Ronaldo were completely unstoppable in plundering goals, while Chelsea were riding on a spirited team performance in almost all the games, despite the sacking of Jose Mourinho. Avram Grant, the caretaker manager for the Stamford Bridge side, ensured that Chelsea were in the hunt for both the Premier League and the Champions League.

The treblesome trio!

Chelsea’s 2-1 victory over United on April 26th handed them the initiative to overtake Sir Alex Ferguson’s side, and both the teams won their penultimate games to go into the final day level on points, but with a far superior goal difference tilting the balance in favour of the Red Devils. To win the title, Chelsea had to beat Bolton and hope that United drop points against Wigan; however, this was not to be, as they conceded a last minute equalizer while Manchester United won comfortably to win their 17th English title, one short of Liverpool’s record of 18 titles. This was not the end of the rivalry between the two sides for the season, with Chelsea losing the Champions League final to the same opponent on penalties, John Terry and Anelka being the primary culprits. Avram Grant was later sacked and replaced by Brazilian Luiz Felipe Scolari.

2009-10 Season

Top Four: Chelsea(86), Manchester United(85),Arsenal(75),Tottenham Hotspur(70)

Arsenal failed to recapture the form of 2007-08, as they underwent another period of transition, having sold Flamini and Hleb last season and Adebayor and Kolo Toure to Manchester City this season, while bringing in Nasri and Arshavin last season and signing Vermaelen as Toure’s replacement. In spite of the quality of the team, they struggled to perform consistently, making the season once again a two-horse tournament between Manchester United and Chelsea. Liverpool were ousted of a Champions League spot by Tottenham Hotspur, which granted them their first ever shot at the Champions League.

Like every other season, Manchester United was once again in the run-in for the title, this time looking to overtake Liverpool after having equaled their record of 18 English titles. If last season saw Ronaldo singlehandedly win them the trophy, this time it was Wayne Rooney’s turn to shine; the Everton-born striker was in red-hot scoring form, plundering 26 goals in the Premier League and 34 goals overall. The Red Devils were trailing behind Chelsea for most part of 2009, but soon the pole position kept changing hands between the two sides. Chelsea were banging in goals for fun ,Didier Drogba leading the charge with 29 Premier League goals and Lampard finding the back of the net 22 times. Carlo Ancelotti was brought in from AC Milan to manage the Blues, and led them to a double in his first season in the Premier League. Under him, Chelsea netted an astonishing 103 goals and managed a staggering goal difference of 71, which proved to be too big for Sir Alex Ferguson’s team to overcome.

The Blue juggernaut rolls on

With three games to go, Chelsea had a tally of 77 points and Manchester United 76 points. Chelsea walloped Stoke City 7-0, and were somewhat handed an easy 2-0 win by Liverpool at Anfield in the penultimate game. Manchester United had beaten Spurs 3-1 and secured a nervy 1-0 win over Sunderland before going to the last game of the season against Stoke City. They could not win on goal difference, and had to rely on Chelsea dropping points while winning against the Potters. Although they thrashed Tony Pulis’ boys by a 4-0 margin, it was of little consolation to them as Chelsea literally tore apart Wigan Athletic in the final game of the season to deny United a chance to overtake the Scousers.

Will this season be a close one?

The current season could very well witness the tightest title chase, as Manchester United and Arsenal have been finding the going tough despite being ahead of the chasing pack. Arsenal are five points behind the Red Devils with a game in hand, and they will need to win most of the nine remaining games and hope that Sir Alex Ferguson’s side stumbles on the way, what with the FA cup semi-final clash with derby rivals Manchester City and a Champions League quarterfinal date with Chelsea on the cards for the Old Trafford outfit, in addition to a rather tough Premier league schedule awaiting them. Chelsea, after having endured a winless streak of nine games, are back to their roaring best and are still in touching distance at the top, just four points behind Arsenal with nine games to go; they will look to capitalize on Arsenal’s history of stuttering in the title chase, and a second spot is not out of question for Ancelotti’s men. With both the top two teams seemingly unable to win convincingly in the league games so far, the next two months could be nerve wracking and nail-biting for Premier League fans round the world. Manchester United’s depth in quality, the availability of fit key personnel for Wenger’s team and the characteristic fighting spirit that Chelsea is famed for could help the respective sides realize their dreams of adding one more title to their kitty.