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Manchester United top list of Premier League's greatest champions

As the 2014-15 title race wound down, there was one question Jose Mourinho was asked even more than when he thought Chelsea would clinch the trophy. It was how these champions would be remembered.

The Portuguese declined to answer before his team finally made it mathematically secure by beating Crystal Palace, but it seems the issue initially arose because many were declining to give his side too much credit. The manner in which Chelsea locked their play down to totally fend off an unconvincing attempt by the pack to chase them has led to a certain perception that they are not particularly good champions.

Of course, deciding the best of the best is a difficult challenge, not least because there is such a range of variables.

An exciting race does not automatically mean an exacting race in terms of quality or even mental fortitude -- look at the amount of slips in 2011-12 for that -- while an uncontested surge does not necessarily indicate an absence of quality.

Even figures like point hauls and goal records do not tell the full story, given how the rhythms and dynamics of individual seasons can be so different.

Many might argue that champions should only be judged on their actual league campaigns, but that would also be unrealistic. Performances in other domestic tournaments might influence the table, while European competition can provide an external barometer of a side's quality.

Ideally, the best champions would hold off a strong challenger while also doing well in Europe and even winning multiple trophies. With that in mind, we weighed up the multiple variables to rank all the champions of the Premier League era, which started in 1992-93, to see where this season's Chelsea rank.

1. Manchester United, 2007-08

The culmination of Sir Alex Ferguson's long career at Manchester United, and by far his most complete team. If beating Chelsea in both the Premier League and the Champions League final was not enough to illustrate how good this squad was, there were so many other impressive strands to this United. Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand led one of the best defences in English and European history, while Cristiano Ronaldo powered a world-class attack, and one energised by perhaps Ferguson's only great tactical innovation with the way they interchanged. It was the sleekest title win of all.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani helped form a dominating Manchester United team that reigned in both England and Europe in 2007-08.
Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani helped form a dominating Manchester United team that reigned in both England and Europe in 2007-08.

2. Chelsea, 2004-05

Mourinho's first Premier League champions, and the finest indication of how he raised the competitive bar to ridiculous levels. With a total haul of 95 points and a ratio of 2.5 per game, 2004-05 Chelsea still have the best points return in all of English history, and the best defence since the Premier League was founded, conceding 15 goals in 38 games. It indicated how they barely made a slip, and emphasised how everyone else could scarcely make an error against them. Chelsea were relentless, trampling their way to the league and League Cup, and coming so close to a Champions League final. They were perhaps the best team never to win the Champions League, and that is why they are not quite the best of the Premier League champions.

3. Manchester United, 1998-99

The most thrilling champions of all, in what must have been one of the most entertaining seasons of all, but that is precisely why they are not quite the best of all. It might feel almost counterintuitive, but the very fact that this United weren't quite overwhelming enough to smother opposition sides directly meant they had to draw on so many other qualities, such as their reserve of spirit to provide so many comebacks. Their haul of 79 points is low compared to the modern returns of the late 1980s, and that in an era when English teams were struggling in Europe. Yet this United seemed capable of lifting themselves above almost anything to eventually win the treble.

4. Arsenal, 2003-04

Always invigorating, so often incisive and -- in the league -- invincible. Arsenal offered one of great achievements in English football by going all 38 games unbeaten, but there also was a great irony to their campaign. Arsene Wenger's side probably should have been European champions that season but ended up getting knocked out at the quarterfinal stage by Chelsea. Still, no one could get close to Arsenal in the league.

Thierry Henry and Arsenal never experienced defeat during their 2003-04 Premier League campaign.
Thierry Henry and Arsenal never experienced defeat during their 2003-04 Premier League campaign.

5. Manchester United, 2008-09

A side that didn't quite retain the authority of the previous season, given how they slightly stuttered and didn't manage the same strike-rate, but still displayed an immense nerve in the run-in. Just when Liverpool seemed to be closing in after their 4-1 win at Old Trafford, United dug in to dramatically win seven games in a row and seal the title. That almost propelled them to winning the Champions League for a second successive season, but they couldn't quite manage that level of success.

6. Arsenal, 2001-02

If not quite Wenger's best-remembered title given the nature of the 1997-98 and 2003-04 campaigns, this one probably provided the sweetest memories. This was the campaign that saw Dennis Bergkamp's famous goal against Newcastle and Sylvain Wiltord's title-clinching goal at Manchester United, with the manner they won it reflecting a supremely balanced side, well-bolstered in defence and wondrous going forward.

7. Arsenal, 1997-98

The defining image of this title was Tony Adams surging forward to secure a 4-0 win over Everton and the trophy itself, but that did not just display how Wenger had changed English football. It mirrored the manner in which the team powered from behind to win it all. It's difficult to think of a team that chased down first place in such a ferocious manner, especially given that longtime leaders Manchester United did not quite blow up in the way Newcastle United did in 1995-96. Instead, Arsenal exploded, as Wenger finally found the right chemistry between the old defence and the new era. They picked up a momentum from March of which any side would have had trouble against.

8. Manchester United, 1993-94

Ferguson's most muscular side, as indicated by the fact that they are the only side other than Chelsea's 2014-15 effort to refuse to budge from top spot once they'd claimed it on the very first day of the season. Even allowing for the occasions when Eric Cantona matched his magnificence with that malevolent temper to get a series of red cards, there was never any doubt about where this league was headed.

In his second season back in charge of Chelsea, the Special One has won his third Premier League title.
In his second season back in charge of Chelsea, the Special One has won his third Premier League title.

9. Chelsea, 2014-15

Perhaps the most impressive aspect about this Chelsea was that they had something of all of the above. They started the season with brilliantly expansive football before showing how to totally lock it down with typical Mourinho defensive solidity. Their run-in to seal the league was one of the finest ever, with 19 points from the last 21, and they remain on course for 92 points, which would give them the second-highest points-per-game ratio in the Premier League. In that, Mourinho was right. They had a range of ways to beat you. Perhaps the issue with the perception of them is that they weren't truly excellent at anything. But they were fundamentally good at everything.

10. Chelsea, 2009-10

The top-scoring team in the Premier League and so often top-performing. There were many matches when Chelsea were utterly sensational, and they further displayed their quality by claiming the double. The only issue was that their brilliance -- and goal-scoring threat -- was exaggerated by the fact they found a capacity to utterly thrash weak teams once ahead. They also benefited from United's poor moves in the transfer market after the sale of Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, Liverpool falling apart and Arsenal suffering the first of their big sales to Manchester City. As such, it's a little more difficult to totally buy this Chelsea's otherwise fine quality.

Best of the rest ...

11. Manchester United, 2006-07
12. Manchester United, 1995-96
13. Chelsea, 2005-06
14. Manchester City, 2011-12
15. Manchester City, 2013-14
16. Manchester United, 2012-13
17. Manchester United, 2010-11
18. Manchester United, 1999-2000
19. Manchester United, 2002-03
20. Manchester United, 1996-97
21. Manchester United, 1992-93
22. Manchester United, 2000-01
23. Blackburn Rovers, 1994-95

Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.

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