Arsène Wenger is convinced his side will secure a top-four finish at Newcastle but Spurs are haunted by near misses of the past
The buildup to the final afternoon has exposed the lay of the land when it comes to the Premier League’s only lingering conundrum. Over in Enfield the talk revolved around the legend of the lasagna and a cruel miracle in Munich, Michael Dawson shuddering as he recalled the near-misses that have cast Tottenham Hotspur outside the Champions League places in the recent past. A little further round the M25, however, and the buzzwords offered up by Arsène Wenger were “strength” and “belief”, the focus on eye-catching recent progress.
Arsenal spy an opportunity in the campaign’s finale. Bitter north London rivals career into contests with under-achieving, yet secure, opponents from the north-east with only a point between them and a place in Europe’s elite at stake. Spurs, unbeaten in seven matches, can muster a Premier League high of 72 points by beating Sunderland and still find themselves fifth, a place lower than last term. If Wenger’s side win at Newcastle, a top-four place is theirs for a 16th season in succession. The Frenchman has watched his team shed only four points from nine games since they succumbed at White Hart Lane. So much for the “negative spiral of results” André Villas-Boas believed was afflicting those across the capital divide at the time.
Life is apparently all about the positives again for Arsenal. No key players are agitating for moves or entering the final 12 months of their contracts at the Emirates, and the three clubs above them in the table at present are facing up to managerial upheaval and summers of change.
“It might not work everywhere,” said Wenger. “So we can have a little advantage on some teams, even if [José] Mourinho coming back to Chelsea, if I read the newspapers well, doesn’t look to be a completely new experience. There is an opportunity for us. When you finish the season strongly – like we are – you prepare already for next season because you go with more certainty. Last year we had a new team, whose belief we have built up, and we want to use that to win the game on Sunday. But the match is also about showing that when you have to turn up, you turn up.
“A win will show we have the strength and belief that we can start strongly again next season, that we remain on a run and it won’t be interrupted by the summer break. It will show there are some qualities in this squad that will come out next year. The last few summers we’ve had the [Cesc] Fábregas and [Samir] Nasri cases, and Robin van Persie last year, and they were very difficult.
“We were on pre-season camps and, every time, a player was half in or half out, and that’s not the best way to prepare mentally for the season. So the stability will help us. Finish in the top four and we’ll give the club the best chance to deal well in the transfer market, and, if we do that well, a good potential chance to win the championship next year.”
Such giddy optimism is born of the late-season rally that has chased down Spurs. Last year Arsenal had trailed by 10 points going into the derby at the Emirates Stadium in February, the 5-2 success that afternoon inflicting psychological damage on Harry Redknapp’s team. Tottenham were overhauled and ended up trailing in by a point and, despite finishing fourth, missed out on the Champions League when Chelsea won the trophy at the Allianz Arena.
“To miss out the way we did was amazing,” said Dawson. “We weren’t even out of the pitch able to do anything about it, but just watching in on television … When it went to penalties I thought: ‘Is this really happening?’ A strange evening. It wasn’t meant to be. Then there was West Ham [in 2006] when we woke up on the final morning in prime position and feeling the way we did.”
At the time, Spurs’ ropiness was put down to food poisoning from the hotel pasta on the eve of the game, though it was apparently actually born of a bug that had festered at the training ground. “That was an absolute disaster,” said the centre-half. “I was one of those struck down, but I played. Well, I was out on the pitch, anyway. You can’t describe it when you have worked 10 months of the season and it comes down to the final day, and there were six or seven of us out there [afflicted]. Michael Carrick had to come off. Running round took it out of you, but football can be cruel sometimes. We can take heart from the way we’ve come back this season, and maybe something bizarre will happen at Newcastle. We’re due one, surely.”
That is their hope. Spurs’ frustration is that a seven-point lead over Arsenal, established in that victory at White Hart Lane in early March, has since been surrendered despite their form hardly appearing slapdash. One last opportunity for salvation remains, but it will be Wenger’s side who can shape their own destiny. The Frenchman was asked about Chelsea’s Europa League success in midweek, his message of congratulations tempered by an insistence that sides eliminated from the Champions League should not drop into the second competition. “But if I’d won the Europa League like Chelsea, I’d have been happy as well,” he added. As it is, whether Tottenham or Arsenal, the side that slips into that tournament on Sunday evening will feel condemned.