All eyes on Newcastle and Sunderland - the rivals with nothing to lose but their integrity
A united front in the North-east of England. That alone feels like something worth talking about. Two cities with a legendary rivalry will decide whether Arsène Wenger, for the first time in 16 seasons, fails to take Arsenal into the Champions' League as Tottenham pip them for fourth place in the Premier League table.
Once the relief that both Sunderland and Newcastle would begin next season in the division had subsided, and the odd loose-lipped quip had eventually settled, a lot of pennies began to drop about the importance of the two games involving those clubs this weekend. A rough estimate would suggest there are £30 million reasons why Arsenal and Tottenham fans need to know they will face two clubs who have not already left, mentally at least, for a beach in the Bahamas.
But to that query came an emphatically reasurring riposte from Alan Pardew and Paolo Di Canio.
Both men benefited hugely from the victory Swansea produced at Wigan with three games of the League season remaining. That win, ultimately, was just about as significant as any either side has produced themselves in the fight to stay in the top flight. Swansea had nothing to play for. Wigan's Premier League future was on the line. Di Canio rarely misses an opportunity to espouse the virtues of English football and in the aftermath of that game, he met a kindred spirit in Newcastle's manager, Pardew. Both men spoke of the League's integrity. Swansea had nothing to play for and won. As Di Canio said, it would not happen in every country.
From that starting point Sunderland must produce something at Tottenham today. They will be missing five key players in Lee Cattermole, Steven Fletcher, Stéphane Sessègnon and Craig Gardner (all injured) and Danny Rose (who is a Spurs employee), but their manager has already cancelled the holidays of those players who planned to fly straight from London after the game. Instead they will return to Sunderland. Initially it was for another two days' training. If the performance at White Hart Lane is unacceptable, Di Canio will keep them training for a further week.
"Intelligence, integrity and respect are important," he said. "Even in the middle of the season it's easy to relax, to give a game away, so you can imagine how easy it is at the end of the season. We have to make sure there is no unprofessional behaviour. We can lose against Tottenham because they are a top side but there is a way to lose a game. I want to win if it's possible or draw because we have something to prove to ourselves. We have to create things for ourselves.
"If they don't deliver, it could be two days or six, seven or eight [extra training], but it will be two days minimum, even if we win five-nil. We have to change the mentality at this club. We have to change our brain. It means giving our best every time, respecting others."
Pardew was genuinely taken aback by the reaction to his joke after Newcastle's victory at Loftus Road, when he said the team could lose four-nil at home to Arsenal today because safety was assured. Now the message is more emphatic. "Integrity is a factor of the Premier League but I don't think about that," he said. "We have 11 professional players on the pitch, all their families will be there because it's the last day of the season and all our fans will expect us to win.
"We have so much on this game that it's irrelevant to talk about integrity. I made a naive joke – that's all it was. We also have the chance to get ten home wins, which is a big incentive for us."
But of more concern is the lack of form which both North-east teams take into the final game. Sunderland have not won in three matches and lost 6-1 in their last away fixture, at Aston Villa. Newcastle have won one of their last five, and in their two previous home games were beaten 6-0 by Liverpool and 3-0 by Sunderland. It promises to be an intriguing final day.
As Voltaire once said, “Ice cream is exquisite. What a pity it isn’t illegal”
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