So near, yet so far – The five greatest ‘nearly’ teams of all time

Once in a while a team comes along that thrills every neutral, seeming destined to succeed before failing at the crucial moment. These sides never fully managed to fulfil their full potential and will be forever remembered as the ‘nearly’ teams. 

5. Chelsea 2007/08

Not as fluent and adventurous as teams higher up the list, but nonetheless possessed a formidable set of world-class players who surely would’ve clinched the title any other year.

Instead they were to finish runners up in the League Cup, and more importantly, the Champions League and Premier League respectively, due to arguably the best Manchester United side that Sir Alex Ferguson ever assembled.

Managed by the incompetent Avram Grant, who went on to lead Portsmouth and West Ham into the Championship in his next two jobs, possibly any other Premier League manager at the time could have led Chelsea to success in at least one competition.

They boasted a midfield quartet of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack and Claude Makelele, and were spearheaded by Didier Drogba in his prime.

Chelsea failed in the most excruciating of circumstances on penalties in the Champions League final just after losing out on the title on the final day.

After a slow start to the season which led to Mourinho’s sacking, they went on to only lose one league game from late September.

They conjured up some memorable performances, beating title rivals Arsenal and Manchester United in the second half of the season. However it wouldn’t be enough to catch United.

Chelsea did go on to lift Europe’s premier competition in 2012, however by that time many of the key players from that season had since departed (Ballack, Makelele, Joe Cole), some of whom would never lift the trophy in their careers.

Most agonising moment: Only one option here. Chelsea hired economist Ignacio Palacios-Huerta to crack Manchester United’s penalty routine. It should have worked, with John Terry given the opportunity to win it.

However, his infamous slip meant that they would remain inches away from their first ever Champions League.          

 4. England 1996

When football ‘came home’, or not quite. This list wouldn’t be complete without an appearance from one of the England sides from the late 80s or 90s.

The team that swept aside a Netherlands side containing Dennis Bergkamp, Frank and Ronald De Boer and Clarence Seedorf with one of the most complete England performances of all time.

Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham were the perfect duo, Sheringham dropping in just behind the tournament’s top scorer, linking with the midfield and selflessly feeding the clinical Shearer.

Their partnership epitomised by England’s third goal, Shearer rifling home Sheringham’s clever disguised pass.

This particular side seemed to tick all the boxes. The flair of Paul ‘Gazza,’ Gascoigne Steve McManaman’s quality out wide, and led by the combative Tony Adams marshalling the defence.

It was England who produced the two most memorable goals of the tournament. Shearer’s against Holland preceded by Gazza’s iconic volley versus Scotland.

However, European Championships aren’t awarded for entertainment, and England predictably fell to Germany in the semi-finals on penalties, having had the better of normal time.

Most agonising moment: Southgate’s missed penalty gets all the press, but Gazza’s failure to connect with Shearer’s ball across an open goal in extra time was the reason penalties were required in the first place.

3. Tottenham Hotspur 2016/17

Pochettino’s energetic, high-pressing team of last season may not end up as ‘nearly men’, but it remains to be seen for how many more campaigns their shrewdly assembled side will remain together.

At times they dished out a footballing lesson to their opponents, frequently dismantling mid-table outfits, exemplified by their 13 goals in the final two games of the season.

Not only did Spurs end the season with the best goal difference in the league (the mark of a true ‘nearly’ team), but they also managed to have the best defensive and offensive record at the same time, yet still finish runners up.

Led by a frontline of Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and Harry Kane, with the latter helping himself to 29 goals in 30 appearances, Spurs embarked on a late title surge with a nine match-winning streak in the spring.

In the end it was a failure to pick up points without their key men, and a run of four consecutive draws in October with Kane out injured proved decisive.

However at times Spurs were unplayable, and were the side to end both Manchester City and Chelsea’s winning streak at a time when they were cruising.

Despite the stunning performances during their campaign, they crashed out to Chelsea in the FA Cup semi-final, meaning they ended the season with fewer trophies than their North London rivals Arsenal, yet again.

Most agonising moment: After levelling up the semi-final due to an outstanding ball from Eriksen (reminiscent of Kaka to Crespo, Istanbul 2005), they let Chelsea retake the lead due to a failure to pick up Eden Hazard on the edge of the area. Chelsea didn’t relinquish it from there.

2. The Netherlands 1974

Surely the team on this list to leave the greatest legacy. The 1974 World Cup brought total football to the international stage, with resounding success.

The Dutch, led by triple ballon d’or winner Johan Cruyff, made their opponents look not only mediocre but also primitive at times as they swaggered into the second round.

The tournament furthered their legendary status due to an iconic moment versus Sweden.

With his back to goal, Johan Cruyff executed a picture perfect body feint, dragging the ball back with the instep of his right foot and turning round to catch the ball. The first recorded Cruyff turn.

The Netherlands battered their opponents into submission with an alarming fluidity and effortlessness, and humbled Argentina 4-0 before knocking out holders Brazil en route to the final.

Thanks to their elegance and purists approach to the game, the Dutch were the neutral’s favourite, but also the outright favourites for the final against West Germany due to their comparative ease in reaching it.

However, it was to be a match that defined Dutch football. After taking the lead before the Germans had even touched the ball, they started to arrogantly knock the ball around, and failed to put the match out of sight.

Later, certain squad members admitted they wanted to embarrass the Germans, due to the intense historical rivalry between the two nations, but it proved to be costly.

West Germany forced their way back into the game, and held firm from a barrage of Dutch chances throughout the second half to triumph 2-1.

The Netherlands would go on to become runners up in the following World Cup, again losing out to the hosts in the final. They remain the most accomplished and respected footballing nation never to win its greatest prize.

Most agonising moment: When Johan Neesken’s volley was somehow kept out by the keeper from point blank range in the second half.

1.Hungary 1954

Referred to as the ‘Golden Team’, the statistics alone give them the unfortunate title of the greatest side never to win a trophy. 42 victories, seven draws and just one defeat, however that defeat came when it mattered most.

They employed a 2-3-3-2 formation seemingly years ahead of its time, and with the century’s top scorer in Ferenc Puskás, they routinely humiliated their opponents.

Notably the ‘Match of the Century’ marked the occasion where Hungary became the first non British side to defeat England on home soil, before dispatching them 7-1 a year later in a World Cup warm up.

Hungary kicked off the World Cup with 9-0 and 8-3 thrashings respectively, and the strike force of Kocsis and Puskás netted ten between them.

They would go on to breeze past Brazil, before knocking out holders Uruguay in the semi-finals, all without the injured Puskás. Ultimately this injury would cost them, and they came unstuck in the final against a West Germany side they had previously dismantled 8-3 in the group.

The Germans seemed to benefit from more than favourable refereeing, on top of a stunning goalkeeping display, and held on for a 3-2 victory.

Were it not for the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, this team surely would have gone on to dominate following tournaments, but have to settle in the end with the title of ‘greatest international side of all time’ – without ever having won anything.

Most agonising moment: A disallowed Puskás strike in the 89th minute contributed to a somewhat controversial refereeing performance.

The Author

Felix Tasker

Freelance football journalist - @boxtoboxfootbal and @bpfootball

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