Europe's battle with the bottle
"When it goes, it goes quickly, and there is nothing you can do about it."
When Sir Alex Ferguson described the irresistible force of a collapse in form, he failed to mention that it might not happen to more than just one side in a season. While a team bottling a title challenge should open up space for the team below to challenge, Ferguson probably hadn't considered that once his team overtook Manchester City, floundering to hold their nerve, his team would experience the same guts-on-the-pitch moment. It's a wider trend, too. Spain and Germany's leagues might have escaped, but in England, Scotland, France and Italy, nerves have been shredded. It's the year of the bottler.
Numerically, Rangers' fall is the most impressive. Fifteen points clear of Celtic in early November, they were two behind by 28 December. Regardless of financial meltdown, or Nikica Jelavic's exit - and he actually left after the collapse, on the final day of December - or any other obstacles, such a fall is inexcusable in such a short space of time.
France, too, deserves a mention. Going into the winter break, PSG were ahead by three points. That's not insurmountable, clearly, but when you consider they added Maxwell, Thiago Motta and Alex at a cost of €16 million and installed Carlo Ancelotti - a Serie A, Premier League and Champions League winner - as their manager, it's not so forgivable. Their competition is Montpellier, with a budget €100 million smaller, and a squad that finished three points above the relegation zone in the previous season. By April 21, Montpellier found themselves five points ahead of the choking Parisians.
Montpellier deserve credit yet, once five points in front, they performed their own wobble. It started from unlikely circumstances. In a game on May 1, Montpellier won a penalty in the dying moments of the game against Evian - a chance to score a winner and extend their lead over PSG. However, Younes Belhanda got himself sent off in the ensuing row, and continued to fight as he left the pitch, and got a suspension for the rest of the season. That's some stumble already, but worsened when Montpellier's top scorer, Olivier Giroud, turned yellow at the thought of taking the penalty, leaving Souleymane Camara to miss. Not happy with his sabotage, Belhanda then criticised Giroud for not taking responsibility. Montpellier are now only three points clear, with the harder run-in. All this from a team claiming they weren't under pressure a fortnight ago.
Another side with an Ancelotti link, AC Milan, are yet to prove that they merit a title. Having been the pre-eminent side for most of the season, they lost to hapless neighbours Inter 4-2 last Sunday. In truth, they could have lost by a greater margin, with a penalty they didn't deserve going their way. Now four points behind, with Juventus winning the title, they will forever feel sick when they consider that in March they held a lead of seven points.
It's in England, though, where the really remarkable failures have happened. One bottle job could be expected, but two in the same season is sheer unprofessionalism. Manchester City started the season playing the type of football that their manager, Roberto Mancini, had appeared to hate the previous season. Scoring for fun, and even actually having fun. That was until Mancini's bum started squeaking early after escaping Loftus Road in November with a 3-2 win. While City were the better side, the fact was they had come so close to defeat playing with a carefree approach to football. No matter that they had just beaten Manchester United 6-1, their manager changed his mind. With a new, defensive approach to away games, Manchester City picked up only two points from the next 12 available away from home.
Not only did the readjustment allow Manchester United to catch up, it also contributed to a lack of form so extensive that by early April, United were eight points clear. With Manchester United's experience, it was job done. Journalists put down their pens and everyone, journalists especially, picked up their booze, and waited for the season to play out with little drama to come.
PSG and Montpellier, AC Milan, Rangers, and Manchester City have all gone out of their way to throw away their possible titles. However, it looks as if in the race for the Premier League, Manchester United are the most impressive bottlers of 2011-12.