Manchester United, Real Madrid and European Football's Greatest-Ever Runners-Up
It is a cruel twist of fate that Roma could end their best-ever Serie A campaign without any silverware to show for it. The Giallorossi have collected 76 points so far, at an average of 2.375 per game. Maintain that pace and they will finish the season with 90.
Only two teams in Serie A history have ever taken more. One of those is the Juventus side of 2005/06, who made it to 91 before having their title stripped from them as punishment for their part in the Calciopoli scandal. The other is Inter's Scudetto-winning group from the following season, who took advantage of a weakened field as they raced to 97 points.
This season, though, the bar looks set to be raised even higher. After 32 games, league leaders Juventus are averaging 2.625 points per game—putting them on course to shatter Inter's record. They have not yet given up hope of reaching the century mark.
Would that leave Roma as the greatest runners-up of all time? Perhaps not. Over the next five pages, we take a look at the competition from Europe’s top leagues.
Italy: Internazionale, 1963/64
Not for nothing are Helenio Herrera’s Inter teams remembered collectively as "il Grande Inter." Over the course of four seasons between 1962 and 1966, the Nerazzurri collected three league titles, two European Cups and two Intercontinental Cups. And yet, they really should have added a fourth Scudetto to that mix. In 1963/64, they finished level on points with Bologna at the top of Serie A, only to lose a head-to-head play-off for the championship. (Video above.)
It was the first—and still the only—time that the Scudetto has been decided in this manner. The game was played at Rome’s Stadio Olimpico on 7 June 1964—a week-and-a-half after Inter had lifted the first of their European Cups. Bologna took the lead through an own goal from Giacinto Facchetti before Harald Nielsen sealed a famous 2-0 victory.
The influential Italian journalist Gianni Brera lamented afterwards that Inter, worn down from a long campaign, had looked like a ghost of the team seen throughout the main part of the season. Excluding the play-off, they finished the campaign with 23 wins and eight draws from 34 matches. Adjusting to the modern standard of three points for a win, they would have averaged 2.26 per game.
Germany: Schalke 04, 1971/72
No play-off game was arranged to determine the winner of the 1971/72 Bundesliga, but fate dictated that the top two teams would face each other on the final weekend anyway. Schalke sat just one point behind league leaders Bayern when they arrived in Munich for their decisive fixture on 28 June.
The visitors boasted the stingiest defence in the division at that time, as well a goalkeeper—Norbert Nigbur—who would be rated by German magazine Kicker as the best in the division that year, per bundesligafanatic.com. And yet they were carved apart by their opponents, losing 5-1.
Schalke had to settle for second place, despite winning 24 of their 34 league fixtures and drawing another four—equivalent to 2.235 points per game in today's terms. Worse was soon to come. A number of the club’s players had been implicated in a match-fixing scandal dating back to the previous campaign and found guilty of accepting money to lose a game to Arminia Bielefeld—read more about that story over at worldsoccer.com. Several players received lengthy bans as punishment, which prevented Schalke from building on the progress they had made.
England: Manchester United, 2011/12
In 2012, Manchester United became the first team ever to lose a Premier League title on goal difference. Worse yet, it was their local rivals Manchester City who pipped them to the post, with a goal in the dying seconds of the season.
Both teams had gone into the final weekend level on points, but United knew that their chances of overtaking their neighbours was slim. They would need to beat Sunderland and hope that City somehow slipped up at home to 17th-placed Queens Park Rangers.
United kept up their end of the bargain, winning 1-0 at the Stadium of Light. For a moment—with City drawing 2-2—it looked as though that would be enough. If QPR could have hung on for just a few more seconds, then United would've won the league.
However, Mario Balotelli laid the ball off for Sergio Aguero to score City’s 94th minute winner and United, on 89 points, had to settle for second place. Exactly as City had done, United won 28 and drew five of their 38 games, averaging 2.34 points per fixture.
Spain: Real Madrid, 2009/10
With 32 La Liga titles to their name, nine Copa del Rey triumphs and just as many European Cups, Real Madrid have had more than their share of success down the years. But it is also true that they have experienced plenty of agonising failures.
In 1958/59, Madrid finished behind Barcelona despite winning 21 times and drawing five more in a 30-game season—equivalent to 2.26 points per game if you adjust to three for a win. The following season, they picked up just one fewer point and yet again had to settle for second place behind the Catalans because of an inferior goal average.
But the most painful experience of all for Madrid came in 2009/10, when they amassed 96 points under Manuel Pellegrini—an average of 2.52 per game—but still came up short. Even the explosive contributions of new arrival Cristiano Ronaldo were not enough to help Los Merengues keep up with Barcelona, who finished on 99.
Things were not much better for Madrid the next year, when they collected 92 points and once again came in just behind their rivals. They would finally gain revenge in 2011/12, winning La Liga with 100 points.
Rest of Europe: Porto, Ajax and Feyenoord
Every league has its hard-luck stories and in every nation you will find teams that have seen spectacular seasons go to waste. Feyenoord recorded 27 victories, four draws and just three defeats in the 1972/73 Dutch Eredivisie, but could not quite catch Ajax in first place.
What goes around, though, can also come around. Thirty-seven years later, in 2009/10, Ajax finished behind FC Twente after exactly matching Feyenoord’s record from that ill-fated campaign.
But if we restrict our search to Europe’s top eight leagues (as defined by the current Uefa country rankings) in the post-WWII era, then the toughest break of all belongs to Porto in 1990/91. In a 38-game season, they recorded 31 victories, five draws and two defeats. Adjusting to three points for a win, that would have been enough to give them 98—or 2.58 per game. But Benfica, with 32 victories, five draws and one defeat, remained just out of reach.