Arsenal v Tottenham v Chelsea v Everton: Four battle to bag riches of Europe's prize
London and Lancashire clash as Wenger, Villas-Boas, Moyes and Benitez push for next season's Champions' League berths in a race that promises to go to the wire
For the 10th season running, Lancashire and London are about to monopolise the top four positions in English football. Newcastle were the last outsiders to claim a Champions' League place, back in 2003, and now they have predictably failed to emulate last season's fifth position, it is a London trio and Merseyside once more contesting the European places.
The consensus seems to be that Everton will have to settle for sixth and that it will be Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham fighting to be not only kings of the capital but, far more importantly, going for Champions' League gold.
Spurs have suffered horribly at the hands of those two rivals in recent seasons, once squeezed out on the last day by Arsenal after a bad dose of dodgy lasagne and then denied a place they had actually earned when Chelsea somehow became European champions a week after the domestic season finished.
In the circumstances it seemed unkind to suggest to Gylfi Sigurdsson at Tottenham's gleaming new training ground on Friday that all the portents seemed to be against the club he joined from Hoffenheim via Swansea last summer, having decided they offered greater Champions' League potential than Liverpool. But, like a solid Scandinavian, he was not in any mind to be looking much further ahead than today's home game against Manchester City.
"It's in our hands," he claimed, which, Spurs having played two games fewer than Arsenal and with a visit to Chelsea to come, is mathematically correct. "We've got tough games but so have the other teams. Every game until the end of the season is going to be tough and very important for us. It would be a good boost to beat the champions [today], that would be fantastic. We need as many points as we can as quickly as we can to make sure we get top- four. It will probably go down to the last game of the season."
Once Andre Villas-Boas had settled in, Spurs reached the top four at Christmas and were only edged out last weekend when their critical game at Stamford Bridge was postponed because of the FA Cup semi-final. Like the manager, Sigurdsson also took time to find his feet, and he believes that it was points dropped during that period that have prevented them taking advantage of their rivals' inconsistency.
"There were a few changes, new players, new managers. It takes a bit of time for everything to fall into place and after a couple of months we went on an amazing run. At the beginning of the season, it was kind of tough for me – I didn't really fit in or kind of click. After a few months I'm feeling better and know how things work, everything's come along again.
"Over the course of the season, it evens itself out. We were not good enough at the beginning. We dropped too many points very late in games and then we turned it around, we were coming from behind and picking up wins, like against West Ham, winning 3-2 away. You get what you deserve in the League."
That West Ham win was followed immediately by beating Arsenal in games that saw Tottenham at their peak, pushed there almost single-handedly by Gareth Bale. After Arsenal he had scored nine goals in seven games, and whether or not he can touch such heights again, they need him back; if not this afternoon, which seems possible, then at Wigan on Saturday and for every match thereafter.
Chelsea have the hardest run-in, starting at Anfield today, when Rafa Benitez has to detach himself from all the surrounding emotion. Despite differing opinions about the level of his achievements at Liverpool, it would be astounding if he did not receive the warmest of ovations; all the more so as a counterpoint to feelings about him among Chelsea followers. As with Gerard Houllier's return as Aston Villa manager in 2010, his name will be sung on the Kop, not in the visitors' section; and Benitez is unsure how he will respond.
"I will try and concentrate, but obviously you can hear the noise from the stands," he said. "What do you expect from a professional: to do his job. I will try and achieve my targets. I have been there for years, though, so after I will wish them the best. But during the game I have to make sure we win."
Do that, and with Tottenham to come at Stamford Bridge, Chelsea would be looking good. A defeat, however, and suddenly the two Europa League games against Basle – the away leg is on Thursday – would loom larger than before amid a testing run-in.
Tottenham Hotspur v Manchester City is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm. Liverpool v Chelsea is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm
v Man Utd (H) Sun 28 April 4pm
v QPR (A) Sat 4 May 5.30pm
v Wigan (H) Tue 14 May 7.45pm
v Newcastle (A) Sun 19 May 4pm
v Man City (H) Today 1.30pm
v Wigan (A) Sat 27 April 3pm
v Southampton (H) Sat 4 May 3pm
v Chelsea (A) Wed 8 May 7.45pm
v Stoke (A) Sun 12 May 1.30pm
v Sunderland (H) Sun 19 May 4pm
v Fulham (H) Sat 27 April 3pm
v Liverpool (A) Sun 5 May 1.30pm
v West Ham (H) Sun 12 May 3pm
v Chelsea (A) Sun 19 May 4pm
v Liverpool (A) Today 4pm
v Swansea (H) Sun 28 April 3pm
v Man Utd (A) Sun 5 May 4pm
v Tottenham (H) Wed 8 May 7.45pm
v Aston Villa (A) Sat 11 May 12.45pm
v Everton (H) Sun 19 May 4pm
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