Tottenham face nail-biting finish as Arsenal look to secure Champions League place on final day of the Premier League season
Fate has often conspired to deny his side a Champions' League place but Michael Dawson prays not this time
At White Hart Lane this afternoon, the home dressing-room will be no place for doubters or pessimists. For the fifth time in recent seasons, Tottenham go into the final week of the season with ambitions of reaching the Champions' League, but only once so far have they played in it. If a fatalistic nature may well be commonplace in the stands by now, the players must continue to believe as they take on Sunderland.
For someone like the captain, Michael Dawson, this is belief despite experience. Having signed from Nottingham Forest eight years ago, he has been at the club for all those climactic weeks, suffering two particular traumas. The first came at the end of his first full season in 2006, when Spurs were a point ahead of Arsenal going into their final game away at West Ham.
The day has gone down as a tale of dodgy lasagne, which – at the risk of letting the facts spoil a good story – was actually a norovirus picked up at the training ground. Be that as it may, Dawson was one of those affected. "From being in prime position, waking up that morning and feeling the way we did – we couldn't believe it, knowing what was riding on it. To miss out on the way that we did that year... It was an absolute disaster.
"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. It wouldn't have been so bad if we had lost fair and square but honestly there were five, six, seven of us out there. Michael Carrick had to come off. You imagine running around like that. It took it out of you."
West Ham, loving it all, won 2-1 and Arsenal, playing their last game at Highbury, duly beat Wigan to steal fourth place. The following year, Arsenal – always Arsenal – held them off more comfortably, but in 2010 Spurs at last claimed their place in the sun; and the San Siro.
Winning the final away game at Manchester City ensured a Champions' League adventure, which Dawson says left the players hungry for more: "To beat AC Milan, those kind of nights were experiences and moments that you enjoy and want to do on a regular and yearly basis, nights that stay with you."
Last season, finishing fourth again seemed to have brought a further opportunity, only to be dashed when Chelsea – more gloating London rivals – somehow left Bayern Munich's backyard clutching the Champions' League trophy and took Spurs's place. For Dawson and his team-mates watching on television, that was even harder to take. "You can't believe it. We weren't even out on the pitch to do anything about it. When it went to penalties I thought, 'Is this really happening?' It obviously wasn't meant to be. Maybe this year it will be. We're due one!"
The laws of football, alas, do not cover just deserts. Worse from Tottenham's point of view is that this time it is Arsenal – them again – who hold the one-point lead, with a vastly superior goal difference, despite having been seven points behind when they lost at the Lane in March.
They have the harder part of the fixture double between north London and the North-east today, away to Newcastle, but it is the time of year to have points in the bag and fate in your own hands.
"Now we rely on ourselves and we are happy," said a smiling Santi Cazorla after his team had won their game in hand which relegated Wigan on Tuesday night. "Newcastle have nothing to play for, so that's in our favour. We're going to give our best to win and if we play as we did against Wigan and focus, we will win."
Cazorla has added something to Arsenal's game this season and his quality in the middle of the pitch has enabled Jack Wilshere to rest recently without affecting results.
Today Wilshere may well take painkillers for the ankle that requires surgery and be sent out for the season's last hurrah. Like Tottenham, Arsenal, who beat Newcastle 7-3 in December, have been here often, the difference being that their nerve and their luck tend to hold.
In a season when they were bound to miss Robin van Persie, Arsène Wenger is proud of having already reached the same number of points as last season with only three fewer goals, as a result of them being shared around more equally.
Now Wenger is looking forward to a rare close-season free of speculation about the potential transfers of his best players.
Tottenham, meanwhile, need to hang on to theirs and offer potential new recruits such as David Villa the pull of the Champions' League. For Dawson, who has already suffered one disappointment this week with his exclusion from the England squad, another failure at the last would be hard to bear.
Newcastle United v Arsenal is on Sky Sports 1 today, kick-off 4pm.
Tottenham Hotspur v Sunderland is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 4pm
Wenger attacks Chelsea
Arsène Wenger who has not won a trophy for eight years, says he is not jealous of Chelsea's success in winning the Europa League, because they should never have been allowed into the competition.
Chelsea beat Benfica in the final last week after both teams had been eliminated from the Champions' League at the group stage. "Their target at the start of the season was the Champions' League, not to win the Europa League," he said. "We have raised that question many times at Uefa: is it right to reward teams basically for failure? The teams who go through in the Champions' League and go out in the last 16 don't have another chance after, you don't drop into the Europa League."
That is what happened to Arsenal, who easily qualified from their group, then went out on away goals in the first knockout game.
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