On THE final day of last season, Arsenal narrowly held off fierce rivals Tottenham to claim third place in the Premier League – which proved more important than either team knew at the time.
A year later, with the title fight decided and the three relegation spots already settled, the two North London neighbours are fighting it out again for a place in the top four and lucrative Champions League qualification.
Tottenham squandered a ten-point lead over Arsenal last year to drop to fourth, which ended up costing Spurs a place in Europe’s premier tournament because Chelsea grabbed England’s fourth spot as defending champions. Now, with one match left to play, Tottenham are facing the same scenario.
After beating Arsenal 2-1 at the beginning of March, Spurs held a seven-point lead over their closest rivals with nine games remaining. Tomorrow, however, it is Arsenal who are in control.
Since their defeat to Tottenham, an unbeaten run of seven wins in nine matches has Arsenal in fourth place, one point ahead of Spurs and knowing a win away to Newcastle will guarantee a top-four finish. Spurs’ goal difference is also significantly worse than Arsenal’s, which means to finish fourth, they have to beat Sunderland and hope Arsenal drop points.
“I know for a long time that for us, when we were seven points behind, we would all be happy that it goes to the last day,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “We are in a position where nobody expected us to be. We have our destiny in our hands, and that’s what you fight for in the game.” If Tottenham beat Sunderland they will finish on 72 points and could miss out on the Champions League despite recording their highest total in the Premier League era. “In the past it would have been enough to make it,” Spurs boss Andre Villas-Boas said. “It would have been enough apart from the 2007-08 season when the fourth-placed team finished with 76 points.”
Europa League champions Chelsea all but guaranteed their place in the top four by beating Aston Villa last weekend, but are still playing to secure third spot and a place in the Champions League group stage. Chelsea are two points ahead of Arsenal, but should Arsenal win and Chelsea lose at home to Everton, Arsenal would finish third. If Chelsea draw, Arsenal must win by at least a two-goal margin.
The statistics are so close that a play-off may be needed – at Villa Park on 26 May – to separate the teams if Chelsea draw and Arsenal win by a single goal while also scoring two more than Chelsea. “I’d fancy a play-off,” said Wenger. “A play-off exists only if we win the game at Newcastle, so let’s win the game and see what happens.”