Winner takes all

Inter Milan registered a 3-2 win over Lazio, taking the team into the 2018-19 Champions League. (Reuters pic)

It is rare, but always especially thrilling, when two rival teams go head-to-head on the final day of a league campaign with all-or-nothing implications, whether the match is related to a league title, a spot in the following season’s Champions League or Europa League, or even survival in the division.

Such was the case when Lazio hosted Inter Milan this past weekend, with Inter registering a 3-2 win over nine-man Lazio. Matias Vecino scored the goal that took the Nerazzurri into the 2018-19 Champions League.

The match will be remembered as one of several memorable final-day deciders in football history.

One of the most memorable clashes of the sort took place on the final day of the 1971-72 Bundesliga season, when a star-laden Bayern Munich played against underdogs Schalke, who trailed the Bavarians by just one point heading into the match.

Ultimately, Bayern’s star power won out, as the team boasting all-time greats such as Paul Breitner, Gerd Muller, Uli Hoeness, and of course, probably the greatest defender of all time, Franz Beckenbauer, destroyed Schalke with a 5-1 victory, giving Bayern the Bundesliga title in a most emphatic manner.

Another memorable final-day showdown occurred in 1989, featuring Liverpool and Arsenal. Before the match, Liverpool led Arsenal by three points and two goals, meaning that not only would Arsenal have to win, they would have to do so by two goals – a difficult task, considering that no team had won at Anfield by two or more goals since 1986. Liverpool were also the stronger team on paper, with a line-up including the likes of Bruce Grobbelaar, John Barnes, and Ian Rush.

As the match headed into stoppage-time, Arsenal led 1-0; impressive for the Gunners given the circumstances, but not enough to land them the league title. Then, in shocking fashion, Michael Thomas scored the decisive goal with almost no time left to deliver Arsenal the first division title, to the astonishment of everyone watching.

The next match that deserves a mention is one that I have referred to in a previous piece, that is the match between Barcelona and Valencia in 2001. In this match, a place in the Champions League was on the line. Valencia needed a draw; Barca, a win.

With just a few minutes to go, the match was deadlocked at 2-2, with Barca’s Rivaldo and Valencia’s Ruben Baraja having scored a brace apiece. At this stage, Valencia would have qualified for the 2001-02 Champions League at Barca’s expense, before one of the most iconic moments in world football history took place.

In the 89th minute, Frank de Boer sent a high ball towards the Valencia penalty area, which Rivaldo took on his chest just outside the box. What followed was a truly legendary goal, as the Brazilian superstar completed his hat-trick and put Barca in the Champions League by firing an incredible bicycle kick that left Santiago Canizares with absolutely no chance.

The match, and the goal, also played a huge role in Rivaldo’s winning the 2001 Ballon d’Or.

Perhaps the most impactful of all such matches was the 2003 match between Chelsea and Liverpool for England’s fourth Champions League spot. A draw would have been enough for Chelsea, while Liverpool needed a win. Unlike the other matches described here, the match itself was rather ordinary, with Chelsea winning 2-1 courtesy of a first-half Jesper Gronkjær goal.

However, the true impact of the match was that Chelsea’s qualification for the Champions League prompted Roman Abramovich to buy the club. Prior to this, Real Madrid were by far the biggest spenders in world football, loading their team with superstar after superstar such as Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and Ronaldo. Abramovich’s takeover of Chelsea changed all of that and launched world club football into a new age: that of the transfer arms race, an era that reached new heights this past off-season when PSG signed Neymar for €222 million.

In years to come, the Lazio-Inter match will surely be remembered in the same way, because of the late last-minute winner and the two red cards. These winner-takes-all encounters are the reason many fans tune in, as there is no greater occasion in a league campaign than these matches which only come around once every few years.

Eu Weijun works at FMT.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.