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Aug 30, 2011

Title deciders, United's bright starts

Norman Hubbard is ESPNsoccernet's resident anorak. If you have any questions on football facts, statistics or trivia, please send them to asknorman@hotmail.com and he'll try to answer as many as possible.

There are always several tiebreakers to determine a team's place in the table: goal differential, goals for, fair play, etc. etc. My question is: Has any major league determined a champion or relegation based on anything except goal difference? Tom Wilson from Vermont asked

Goal difference is now the determining factor if two sides are level on points in England. However, it used to be goal average - that is the ratio of goals scored to goals conceded. It decided the title in 1924, when Huddersfield were champions and Cardiff second, with a superior ratio of 1.81 to 1.79. However, were the current rules applied then Cardiff, who have never won the league, would have been champions: both sides finished with a goal difference of plus 27, but Cardiff had both scored and conceded one more goal (61 and 34 respectively) than Huddersfield.

Goal average also decided the destination of the title on three other occasions, although on each (in 1950, when Portsmouth edged out Wolves; in 1954, when Arsenal took the trophy ahead of Preston; and in 1965, when Manchester United finished ahead of Leeds) the winners were the same by either system. Goal difference replaced goal average in England from 1976.

The majority of leagues these days are determined by one of two systems: goal difference or head-to-head record between the teams level at the top. However, Serie A, which now uses the head-to-head record of the duelling factors - though in actual fact, it has never come to that - used to be decided by a play-off. The last time that happened was in 1963-64, when Bologna defeated Inter 2-0 in a one-off game in Rome. Intriguingly, were we to backdate it and apply the head-to-head record, Inter would have been champions. La Liga is another to use the head-to-head record if teams are level on points, something that last happened in 2006-07 when Real Madrid took the title instead of Barcelona, who had a far better goal difference.

A full list of which leagues use various systems can be found here.

One of the more interesting anomalies is the Russian Premier League, which is decided by most wins if the top teams are level on points. On those grounds, CSKA Moscow were champions, rather than Spartak, who had a vastly superior goal difference, in 2006.

I don't remember Manchester United having such a good start to the season, at least in recent memory, so could you recount seasons they started so well and their position at the end of the league? Ibrahim Kwakhu Duah asked

Like many things, it depends how you define a good start. Last season, United went unbeaten in their first 24 league games of the season, though the fact they drew five of the first eight means some wouldn't classify it as a winning start. In 2009-10, meanwhile, they won six of their first seven league games, losing only at Burnley in their second game, and eventually finished second behind Chelsea.

If you want a start consisting solely of wins, their best under Sir Alex Ferguson is the four straight victories in 2006-7 when they went on to win the league. Much the club's best beginning to a campaign, however, was in 1985-6 when Ron Atkinson's team reeled off 10 straight victories. They still only finished in fourth, behind champions Liverpool plus Everton and West Ham.

I wonder if the Forlan family's achievement in Copa America is unique, where son, father and grandfather all won the competition? Kah Leong asked

It is indeed unique. Pablo Forlan, a defender, won the Uruguayan league seven times and the Copa Libertadores in 1966, during the first of two spells at Penarol. He won 17 caps for his country, winning the Copa America in 1967. Juan Carlos Corazo, who had three spells in charge of Uruguay, played for Independiente in Argentina during the 1930s.

As an Everton fan I have constantly felt that we happen to regularly be the team to appear last on Match of the Day. I was wondering who is the team which has appeared last the most times in the Premier League era? Paul Quinn from Bunbury asked

For readers outside the United Kingdom, Match Of The Day is the Saturday evening Premier League highlights show on the BBC. Its running order can generate controversy, with the implication that the first game is the best, most exciting or most glamorous and, while I'm not suggesting Paul is saying as much, it fuels many an accusation of bias from fans who feel their club is being ignored. More in-depth coverage of it can be found on Mike Whalley's excellent Last on MOTD blog, which debunks many such theories. He has noted the final fixture (ie, the one deemed least interesting) over the past four seasons. Last year, Fulham and Wigan (10 each) were the most frequent choice (Everton, by the way, were on last five times, putting them sixth). Over those four years, Wigan (31) edged out Fulham (30) for last spot. Everton were on last 16 times, while Manchester United never were.

As for the entire Premier League era, Everton may be in with a chance, simply because they are one of only seven ever-presents in the division, but I don't believe anyone has the statistics to prove it. However, it is worth remembering that ITV had the rights to the highlights for some of that time, so whoever was on last then, the BBC should not be blamed.

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