It’s a shame that overall there isn’t too much to play for as we approach the final weekend of the season. Wigan’s exhausted display against Arsenal on Tuesday night sealed their fate, and of those also involved in the relegation scrap, with an inevitable 4-1 defeat at the Emirates, whilst the title race at the top of the Premier League has been decided for quite some time. Yet there is still one season-long battle yet to be decided – who will claim the remaining Champions League spot?
But more than just a simple contest between two top flight clubs desperate to make it into Europe’s most prestigious club tournament, the battle between Arsenal and local rivals Tottenham for continental qualification is filled with side-stories, sub-plots and drama, and has the potential to become a cross-roads that will determine the near future of both halves of North London.
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With their fate now in their own hands -being sat currently in fourth place and a point above Spurs – the pressure is on Arsene Wenger’s men not to get pipped to the post on the last day of the season by the noisy neighbours, in a reverse in fortunes from the campaign previous. It’s a contrast in terms of motivation for the Gunners in comparison to the latter half of their season, who’ve come back from a slow start to play without fear and the weight of expectation – having been eliminated from every domestic cup, the Champions League itself and the title race early on – allowing them to muster together one of the hottest runs of form in the division, with their last defeat coming in March’s North London derby.
The Emirates boss will be intent on making sure his players don’t fall trap to the nervousness of the situation, during their clash at the weekend against Newcastle. The Magpies’ poor season may well now be over, but Alan Pardew will be determined to conjure up a positive display, or else the fans will undoubtedly be making their feelings felt following the final whistle regarding his bipolar tenure.
Despite being the underdogs, the Lilywhites will be certainly feeling the pressure too amid their final fixture at home to Sunderland. Champions League football is what the club, the fans and the players have been desperate for ever since their first taste under Harry Redknapp in 2010, and Tottenham’s knack of falling at the final hurdle will no doubt be a weight on everyone’s mind.
Similarly, playing at White Hart Lane could well work against them. Spurs’ style of play is much better suited to away fixtures – being allowed to soak up pressure, only to unleash Gareth Bale into acres of space in the hope that the Welsh wonder can produce further world-class magic whilst running with the ball at his feet. The starting XI’s chances of victory will be boosted by the return of this season’s unsung hero – Aaron Lennon. The Englishman is the ying to Bale’s yang, and taking your eye off Lennon in a bid to halt the threat of Bale will only result in one’s own undoing.
But whereas only a small contingent of St. James’s Park will be getting hot under the collar on Sunday, the whole of White Hart Lane’s home support will be itchy and nervous. A single goal from Arsenal could quash the atmosphere in its entirety, and should it come to a hairy final few minutes, the players may be overwhelmed by the situation and the franticness of their own fans, desperate for history not to repeat itself.
That being said, no one will be feeling the pressure more than Arsene Wenger, whose reputation will be on the line and has the most to lose from Arsenal’s failure. Although his achievements during the first half of his tenure should never be ignored, claiming Premier League titles, FA Cups and making it to a Champions League final, under the Frenchman’s watch, the club has transformed over the last decade from a squad of ‘invincibles’ into a gang of Europe’s ‘next best’ talents, with every new signing being a less adequate, less talented and cheaper replacement for any particular individual from the now lengthy cast of Arsenal stars to leave the Emirates in search for silverware or a more competitive wage.
The club is in malaise, and seemingly cursed amid their eight years without a trophy. Even Ryo Miyaichi, who’s spent the season on loan to Wigan, now has an FA Cup to add to his CV following his year away from the Emirates. Arsene Wenger has vowed to change his ways, promising huge financial investment in marquee signings in the summer, but without the carrot of Champions League football, they will find it hard to bring added quality to the Emirates in the coming transfer window
Furthermore, Wenger’s only noteworthy achievement in the club’s recent history – their continual Champions League qualification year upon year – will go out the window, and suddenly the justification to keep the Frenchman on, despite the Gunners’ obvious decline, will go with it. With just a year left on his contract, finishing in fifth will spell out to many that Wenger’s era has quite simply been and gone, and if the club wish to move back towards the title race a change in management will be required.
Similarly, losing out to Spurs will seriously alter the balance of power in North London. Both sides can claim one victory a piece in the derbies, but this season presents the best opportunity to date for the Lilywhites to topple their rivals, who have maintained their historical dominance throughout Tottenham’s rise to ascendancy, and finishing above Arsenal will be as much of an achievement in itself as qualifying for the top tier of European football. Above all, it would be a crushing blow for Gunners fans, whom will for the first time in a generation have the unusual feeling of not being privy to bragging rights in North London, which will only further signify how their club is moving backwards to the benefit of their most hated foes.
On the other hand, Daniel Levy will be more disappointed than ever, should Spurs not make it into Champions League for yet another year, despite the current campaign representing their biggest opportunity to do so. This season has seen the Lilywhites owner depost his former manager Harry Redknapp, on the grounds of Spurs’ inability to get the results against the bigger teams, in favour of a young buck full of ideas but lacking in experience in Andre Villas-Boas.
The victories have come against Arsenal and Man United, but somewhere along the line, the former Chelsea boss has let it slip. In addition to the sizeable summer funding for new recruits – bringing in a top goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris, a Premier League Team of the Year centre-back in Jan Vertonghen and a midfield powerhouse in Moussa Dembele – Levy is desperate for his change in leadership not to have been in vain, and for his investments to pay off.
Furthermore, the question will be ‘where do Tottenham go from here?’ should they fail to qualify. Without elite European football, it’s questionable as to whether Gareth Bale will see out the summer at White Hart Lane or be lured into signing for a continental super-power, whilst there will be further hesitancy to join the club on the part of long-term transfer targets Joao Moutinho and Leandro Dalmao, following another year of stalled progress in North London.
It will present further evidence that it is more a mentality than anything else holding the Lilywhites back. The squad is in place, all be it lacking in depth in a few departments, the young, exciting, visionary manager is at the helm, and they even have a world-class talent to underpin the successes of the first team. Yet history appears determined to repeat itself; the fans will think back to the now infamous ‘lasagne-gate’, and last season’s misfortune of losing out on a Champions League spot, despite finishing up in fourth, to the hands of Chelsea following their crowning as Champions of Europe.
Spurs certainly have more to gain from qualifying – it will be a new height for the club, and signal how they have risen from mid-table obscurity into a continental force, with a stellar cast including the likes of Bale, Vertonghen and Lloris. Yet, it is often not the reward that motivates the player; it is rather the desperation to avoid failure, which is undoubtedly Arsenal’s and Arsene Wenger’s sole motivation. The Lilywhites will once again be bitterly disappointed should they finish up in fifth, but on the other side of North London it would represent catastrophe – a club in decline, a squad lacking in talent and a manager still greatly loved but coming up short year upon year.
I can only see it working to Arsenal’s advantage. They have been here before, they are unwilling to let the club’s reputation come into disrepute and they have dealt well with overwhelming criticism on more than a handful of occasions this season. Many have anticipated a shift in power in North London and in the Premier League, however, I predict that the Gunners, a proud member of the old guard and traditional top four, are not prepared to let slip their Champions League status just yet, whilst a psychological block continually remains in Tottenham’s way.