Top Four Tussle: The Three Horse Race That Could Spell Disaster For The Loser
As we near the close season, Tom Gatehouse looks at what is really at stake for Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham in the race for the remaining Champions League spots
It’s crunch time. Down to the last 6/7 games and the two remaining Champions League spots are beckoning for two steadfast teams to grab. Arguably whittled down to a purely London-based affair, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal are desperately vying to salvage their respective League seasons with top-level birth in Europe’s premier event next season. The three sides are tussling at very close quarters, considering that only two points separates them, and it is too close to call at this stage. But failure for the loser could result in unique consequences that may stretch beyond the next few seasons.
The situation arguably looks the most promising for the Blues. Currently the leaders of the chasing trio in 3rd place, level on points with Tottenham, but with a superior goal-difference; the Blues have also played a game less than Spurs. But Chelsea have a hectic schedule, and their squad has been sternly tested due to their continued presence in both the Europa League and the FA Cup.
Rafa Benitez bemoaned his side’s fixture list after securing a 3-1 first leg, Europa League Quarter Final lead over Rubin Kazan, and also commented that the media’s obsession with the race for top four has put extra pressure on his team,
“Two or three days before it was a crisis, two hours before the game it was the end of the world,” Benitez told Sky Sports,
“The media works too fast, too quick. We have to have more relaxation when we do the analysis.
“We still have one game in hand. The team is playing too many games. To win this after four games in eight days, you cannot ask for more.”
The remaining fixtures for the league will not be pleasant viewing for the Chelsea faithful. With ominous trips to both Liverpool and champions-elect, Man Utd, they will also host Tottenham and dark horses, Everton at Stamford Bridge. Games against London rivals Fulham, bogey side Swansea will do little to lighten the load, and an away fixture against an Aston Villa side looking to stave away relegation in the penultimate game of the season completes a difficult run in for the Blues.
Despite this, it would certainly be a surprise if they did not finish in the top 4 this season, but they will have to put aside their dreams of second place if they are to successfully hold off their fierce rivals below them.
To add further fuel to the fire, talk of Jose Mourinho making a return to the Bridge has been rife, as has the rumour that his homecoming strongly hinges on Chelsea’s presence in the Champions League next season. Failure for them could not only mean the loss of their fairy-tale managerial appointment, but narrow their already diminished search for a permanent manager even further.
Spurs have had a good first season under new manager, Andre Villas-Boas. The former Chelsea boss has cultivated a real team spirit in his debut season in charge, and has overseen not only a sustained attack on the top positions in the league, but the blossoming of Tottenham’s star man, Gareth Bale. The Welshman has lit up the Premier League this season with a plethora of outstanding showings, putting him in real contention for ‘Premier League Player of the Year’.
But his injury in Spurs’ Europa League Quarter Final last week could be a deciding factor in their push for Champions League football next season. Slotted in the 4th and final qualifying spot, Tottenham have relied heavily on their wing wizard this year, as an obvious striker problem has been a feature of their league campaign.
Even before his injury, results had started to go against them, with recent defeats against Liverpool and Fulham threatening to undo all of their past efforts. And with their top-scorer’s return date not certain, Villas-Boas’ Spurs are gearing up for the worst case scenario – the greatest test of their season – to achieve a qualifying birth without Gareth Bale.
The Tottenham boss knows how easily things can change in the league, and called for his team to deal with the pressures of the business end of the season,
“Everything shifts very quickly in the Premier League but we have been in this position before and you have to live with the pressure,” Villas-Boas told the BBC,
“We play Manchester City and Chelsea and in those games you will probably see something being decided.”
The clash against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge has been postponed due to the West London club’s FA Cup semi-final commitments, and Villas Boas knows that this game could well decide the fate of both club’s Champions League ambitions,
“We will have to be focussed against the European champions, a difficult team, in their ground, and we just have to keep going,” he continued.
While Bale may yet recover in time to help guide his team to one of the qualifying spots, Tottenham’s failure to achieve it may hasten the Welshman’s exit from North London. With the likes of Madrid and Barcelona touted as potential suitors for the 23 year-old’s signature, the likelihood of Bale remaining at Tottenham beyond the summer would be slim if they fail to secure that most precious of qualifying places.
The current situation the club finds itself in will not be a new one for Gunners boss, Arsene Wenger. Although lying 5th and outside the qualifying net, Arsenal are now perceived as experts at grabbing a qualification spot, even in the face of expected failure. Wenger has in fact guided the Gunners into the Champions League for the last 16 years.
Albeit a tremendous feat, his ability to secure that spot is becoming more and more difficult with each passing year. Gone are the days of ‘invincible’ seasons, where clubs can go an entire season undefeated, due to the sheer competitiveness of the English top flight, and the newfound spread of talent.
Wenger is optimistic, and knows that focus must remain on winning their remaining games, rather than peering up at the actions of the clubs ahead,
‘We know we have one target to win our games, then we don’t have to look at Tottenham or Chelsea. If we lose our games, then you have to look at the results of the others,’ Wenger told the Daily Mail,
‘Our attitude is simple, we have to win the games. ‘We are ready for the fight and we always tell the players, “Don’t look at everyone else, just focus on ourselves”.’
With six wins out of seven, Arsenal are certainly charging forward relentlessly in search of the sanctuary of the top four. And, with a run-in that includes games against Norwich, QPR, and Wigan, Gunners fans will be expecting their side to pull the rabbit out of the hat once more.
But if they are the losers in this particular end of season scrap, then it will pile even more pressure on the already heavily criticised Wenger, not to mention the Arsenal board, who many believe are stunting the growth of the once Kings of England. If this is to be the first time Wenger has failed for many moons to guide the Gunners into the Champions League, then we may witness huge changes at the club that have not been seen for even longer.
What do you think? Who will miss out this year? Get involved in the comments below!
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