When the Champions League play-off suggestion was made earlier this season (and laughed out of court accordingly), few would have guessed that we would be where we are with four and a half days of the Premier League season left to play. Aston Villa’s wobbly second half of the season coupled with Liverpool ably demonstrating that the abjectness that they displayed during the first half of the season was absolutely no flash in the pan have set up something approaching what the originators of the plan had envisaged. With two matches left of the season, either Manchester City or Tottenham Hotspur will be taking their chances in the final qualifying round of the Champions League. It has been a very odd season indeed in the Premier League.
For Spurs, recent results have gone their way. A draw this evening leaves their destiny in their own hands, and will mean that a win at Burnley on Saturday will guarantee them a chance at a share of the multi-million pound pot. Following Arsenal’s defeat at Blackburn Rovers on Monday, a win will not only guarantee them a place in the final qualifying round for the Champions League with a match to spare, but also keep the slight hope of being able to finish above Arsenal in the Premier League for the first time since 1992/93 – the very first season of the Premier League – alive. Still, though, as their recent defeat at Sunderland seemed to confirm, they are still plenty capable of turning in a tepid performance when they need something more. The club motto is “Audere Est Facere”, but it has occasionally felt over the last twenty years as if “Snatching Defeat From The Jaws Of Victory” might have been more appropriate. One of the biggest psychological corners of all for them will be turned with a win tonight.
For Manchester City, meanwhile, the heat is on. As the season has entered its closing stages, the heat has started to be turned up on Roberto Mancini and it all feels a little unfair. They bounced back from a third heart-breaking last minute defeat of the season with a handy goalless draw at Arsenal and an almost perfunctory win against Aston Villa. They’re still here with two matches of the season left to play, and they will be in the Europa League next season no matter what. Rational conclusions don’t sit particularly comfortably well with the sort of money that the club’s new owners have thrown around over the last couple of seasons, but they have made progress this season. The gap between them City (and indeed Spurs) and the top three certainly feels as if it has narrowed this season.
The opening five minutes are predictably frenetic, with City, perhaps unsurprisingly considering that it is they that really need the win tonight, looking the slightly more stilted of the two teams. Five minutes, however, is all that it takes for Carlos Tevez to start getting into gear and it is a run of his down the right-hand side that brings the first clear chance of the night, a shot from an angle that is blocked by the knees of Heurelho Gomes. Barely thirty seconds later, like a clockwork weeble on legs, he’s off again and the ball is smothered behind for a corner. Spurs, though, seem content to allow City to buzz around the edge of their penalty area for as long as the final City pass is wayward, which it too frequently is and they then counter-attack to create, in quick succession, the two best chances of the half so far, with Peter Crouch’s header thumping against the post and then Ledley King has a goal disallowed when his header from a Gareth Bale corner is ruled out for using him using Gareth Barry as an impromptu step-ladder in order to reach the ball.
Still, though, the possession swings from end to end. Heurelho Gomes, showing none of the signs of the injury that threatened his starting position in the first team, has to leap across the goal to push a misplaced header from Gareth Bale around the post. In the closing minutes of the first half, there are further chances at each end – Bale shoots inches wide at one end while, at the other, Kolo Toure heads straight at Gomes with a free header – but the half, which has felt as if it passed in the blink of an eye, ends with the crowd no closer to knowing how this will end up.
The second half starts with a similar flurry of activity, with a deep Manchester City cross that is flicked back to safety at one end and a Jermain Defoe shot which Marton Fulop stretches across his goal and flicks just wide. It’s an agonising moment for Spurs, who have created the best of the chances so far, but as the second half wears on they really start to get on top and City, for all of their industry the exertion, are starting to look as if they might be fading. A low cross skids across the face of goal, inches away from the onrushing Defoe and Crouch. In some respects, it starts to feel as if the roles are almost reversed. It is Spurs that are doing most of the pushing and City that are pinned back. With just under a quarter of an hour to play, they have another golden opportunity when a cross from the left finds Peter Crouch unmarked and six yards out, but Fulop blocks his header excellently.
With eight minutes to play, though, the break-through comes, and it is nothing less than Spurs’ second half performance has merited. Younes Kaboul skips past Craig Bellamy on the right hand side and, rather than trying to place his cross, drives the ball as hard as he can straight at Fulop. The ball clips off Wayne Bridge and the goalkeeper can only palm it out, allowing Crouch to nod it into the empty net from close range. Maybe it is because it so late in the season. Maybe it is because Spurs have been clearly the stronger side in the second half. Whatever the reason, City have nothing left to give once Spurs have the advantage. There is a substitution which carries an air of desperation about it – Bellamy for Roque Santa Cruz – but even with the one goal advantage Spurs look more likely to add a second goal than City do to equalise and, in injury time, Fulop saves well again, this time from Modric.
And with that, the final whistle blows and Tottenham Hotspur, for the first time since 1962, will be playing for the European Cup next season. This evening, they have thoroughly deserved it. After weathering a Manchester City storm in the opening twenty minutes, they looked calm and controlled where City occasionally looked uncoordinated. Spurs spent much of the second half camped in the City half, playing to win the match when the advantage would have remained with them had they parked the proverbial bus in front of their own goal and played out the second half for a goalless draw. It was a bold tactical decision by Harry Redknapp and it paid dividends. The Manchester City defence looked frequently stretched – particularly in the second half – and Spurs smothered them to such an extent that in the last ten minutes they could scarcely get the ball out of their own half.
What happens next with Manchester City, however, will come down to the whims of those that now own the club. It would seem to make sense, however, for the club to allow Roberto Mancini time to settle. A squad can be bought, but a team takes time and patience to build and meld together, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that City can’t push very hard for fourth place (or, indeed, higher) next season on the basis of what we have seen over the last nine months. It may feel like a mere crumb of comfort tonight, but this is their best finish since 1992 and the Europa League will bring them European football next season. Tonight, however, the deserved congratulations go to Tottenham Hotspur. They haven’t qualified for the Champions League yet (they will enter the competition at the final qualifying stage unless Arsenal contrive to lose at home against Fulham on Sunday and they beat Burnley), but the future at White Hart Lane looks a good deal brighter than it has for many, many years.