Speaking at the end of last month, Napoli talisman Dries Mertens was quoted as saying that this season may be now or never for the club to end their 27 year wait for a Serie A title.
Napoli aren’t the first club to have had a title challenge engulfed by that sense of now or never, so here are some more examples of clubs who in recent years have mounted a title challenge that had that same sort of feeling…
8. FC Rostov (2015-16 Russian Premier League)
Going into the start of the 15/16 season, Rostov had never before been considered a contender for top honours in Russia, and had had to come through a relegation playoff to keep themselves in the country’s top division at the conclusion of the previous season.
But after a steady start to the season, the club went into the winter break second in the league following a flourish at the end of the year.
Rostov pushed on even further after the turn of the year, and would lead the title race with just five games to go. Then, however, they suffered their only loss in the spring section of the season, a 2-1 defeat to eventual bottom side Mordovia Saransk courtesy of a penalty four minutes from time.
That defeat would prove decisive, as they lost the title to CSKA Moscow by two points.
7. Bursaspor (2009-10 Turkish Super Lig)
Only seven league titles in Turkey belong to clubs outside the big three of Besiktas, Fenerbahce and Galatasaray. Six of those have gone to Trabzonspor, while the seventh, and most recent, belongs to Bursaspor, who lifted their one and only title in the 2009/10 season.
That season saw The Crocodiles, as Bursaspor are known, lead for much of the closing stages of the season, only for a goalless draw at Galatasaray with four games remaining hand the advantage to Fenerbahce.
All “Fener” had to do to win the title was take victory in their three remaining games and they would be champions. But on the final day, Fenerbahce were held to a 1-1 draw by Trabzonspor, and Bursaspor pounced with a 2-1 victory over Besiktas, sparking jubilant scenes as Bursaspor claimed the title by just a single point.
6. Feyenoord (2016-17 Eredivisie)
Going into the 2016-17 season, Dutch giants Feyenoord were without a title since the turn of the century, and had only even finished second on three occasions in that period. An explosive start that saw them go eleven games unbeaten at the start of the season, including nine straight wins, put them in pole position to end that long wait for a league title.
Feyenoord were never off top spot in the whole of the season, but a 3-0 defeat to Excelsior in the penultimate game sowed the seeds of doubt and allowed Ajax to move within a point going into the final day.
There would, however, be no second slip from Feyenoord, and club icon Dirk Kuyt hit a hat-trick in his final game before retirement in a 3-1 win over Heracles to seal the championship in perfect style.
5. Monaco (2016-17 Ligue 1)
With the likes of Kylian Mbappe, Bernardo Silva, Tiemoue Bakayoko and Benjamin Mendy having all moved on from Monaco as expected in the 2017 summer transfer window, it is perhaps little surprise that many felt Monaco’s 2016-17 Ligue 1 was the only chance that side full of young superstars would have to lift the French title as a group.
Indeed, European giants were circling around the principality’s squad long before a 2-0 win over St Etienne in the penultimate game sealed a first title in 17 years for a side that swept all before them, hitting a staggering 107 goals in an unforgettable season.
4. Atletico Madrid (2013-14 La Liga)
It had been 10 years since a side other than Real Madrid or Barcelona had lifted the Spanish title, and eighteen since Atletico Madrid had done so, when the curtain was lifted on the 2013-14 La Liga season.
That, however, was all about to change.
Diego Simeone’s side went head-to-head with both Barca and Real, and it was the combative style of Atletico that for once, won out. Atletico netted just 77 goals that season, compared to Barcelona’s 100 and Real’s 104, but going into a final day decider at the Nou Camp, Atletico’s resilience proved decisive.
Trailing 1-0 to Barca, a result that would have given Martino’s side the title on the head-to-head record, it was the centrepiece of the Atletico defence, Diego Godin, who rose highest to head home an equalising corner, handing Atletico a famous triumph.
3. Liverpool (2013-14 Premier League)
When Philippe Coutinho swept home Liverpool’s third goal in a 3-2 win over Manchester City at Anfield on 13th April 2014, it seemed as though the club’s 24 year wait for a title was just weeks from its end.
That win meant that victory in Liverpool’s final four games would secure them the championship. What happened next, however, is one of the infamous stories in Premier League history.
Steven Gerrard’s slip two weeks later against Chelsea let City back into the title race, and when a hunt for potentially crucial goal difference at Crystal Palace backfired and a 3-0 lead became a 3-3 draw, the title race was as good as over. A final day win over Newcastle was therefore rendered irrelevant as City beat West Ham to claim their second Premier League title by two points, having been seven behind Liverpool, albeit with two games in hand, following their defeat at Anfield.
2. Leicester City (2015-16 Premier League)
No list of unexpected championships will ever again be complete without recognition of Leicester City’s spectacular 5000-1 Premier League triumph in 2015-16.
Unlike just about every other title challenge, this was not targeted or anticipated even within the club itself, but as every week passed that saw Claudio Ranieri’s take a step closer to that famous title, more and more people began to believe that the unthinkable might just happen.
In the end, it was a result that almost everyone was rooting for, if only to remind us that in football, absolutely anything will always be possible.
1. Inter Milan (2017-18 Serie A)
Since Dries Mertens said that this was a now or never season for Napoli, Gli Azzurri have won just one of three league games, losing their unbeaten record to Juventus in the process.Thankfully for the neutral, however, Napoli are still far from out of it, and they aren’t even the only side looking to end the domestic domestic held by Juve in the past six years.
It has been six seasons without a top three finish for Inter, but with Mauro Icardi in seemingly unstoppable form and those around in looking just a formidable, a first Scudetto since 2010 could be on the horizon.