There isn’t anybody in world football who believes Arsenal will have Champions League football next season,” declared Jamie Carragher on Sky Sports Monday Night Football, suggesting the pundit does not know many Tottenham fans.
Even with their side overwhelming favourites to finish the job and clinch fourth place at Arsenal’s expense, the most optimistic Spurs supporter will still be feeling the nerves ahead of the visit to Norwich on Sunday.
A point at Carrow Road would effectively guarantee Tottenham’s return to the Champions League after a two-year absence but memories of Lasagna-gate loom large, as well as a pervasive feeling that the club has a tendency for self-sabotage, particularly where Arsenal are concerned.
The facts are reassuring. Norwich have taken just five points from the last available 42 and are on course to be one of the seven worst teams in Premier League history. Dean Smith’s doomed side have long appeared to be willing the season to come to an end.
The Canaries still have the incentive of avoiding a rock-bottom finish — they could leapfrog Watford with a win — and will be supported by a home crowd savouring a last taste of top-flight football for at least a year.
Spurs, though, have developed a steeliness under Antonio Conte which suggests they should have more than enough to get over the line, particularly with Harry Kane in form and Heung-min Son chasing the Golden Boot. A fourth-place finish would cap an encouraging turnaround for Spurs, not just during the run-in but over the past 12 months.
Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Daniel Levy’s memorable letter to fans, in which the chairman admitted the club had “lost sight of some key priorities and what’s truly in our DNA” and promised to appoint a manager who would play “free-flowing, attacking and entertaining” football.
And Saturday marks a year since Harry Kane’s interview with Gary Neville on The Overlap podcast, which kicked-started last summer’s transfer saga.
Levy has, belatedly, got his entertaining manager and a return to the Champions League would be a vindication of sorts for the chairman for taking a risk on Conte where others would not and refusing to entertain the sale of Kane.
Conte is the driving force behind the club’s revival, while Kane has been much more settled since the Italian’s appointment and spoken positively of their prospects, suggesting he is not planning another transfer push. With Conte, Kane, Son and Champions League football, Spurs would be well-placed to kick on.
Arsenal are also confident of a bright future under Mikel Arteta but a return to the Champions League would have kick-started his project and if they fall short it will feel like a massive opportunity missed.
A dramatic final twist on Sunday also depends on beating Everton, which is no guarantee with the Toffees finally playing with the shackles off after securing their survival with yesterday’s remarkable comeback win over Crystal Palace.
Arteta has urged side to be ready in the event of a Spurs slip-up but finishing the season strongly feels important, regardless of the outcome at Norwich.
Arteta has earned favourable comparisons to Mauricio Pochettino for the way he is building a project based on a clear philosophy, youth and an absence of player power, and the Spaniard last week described the former Spurs manager as a “football father”. Pochettino is well-placed to advise Arteta about the potential impact of a late-season psychological collapse after his title-chasing Spurs imploded at the end of 2015-16, losing 5-1 at Newcastle on the final day. Pochettino stewed on the result for the entire summer, later admitting it “killed” his break.
If the Gunners lose again on Sunday, Arteta will have overseen a similar slump which would lead to a glum mood during the players’ lap of honour, potentially setting the tone for the summer ahead.
Finishing the season as they started it, with three straight defeats, would also give the impression that limited progress has been made over the course of a campaign in which Arsenal have still overachieved — or at least made par.
Both north London clubs are in transition and returning to the Champions League would feel like a chance to steal a march on the other during the difficult process of rebuilding.
With Chelsea and Manchester United also heading for periods of transition under a new owner and coach, respectively, a top-four finish is also important in a wider context, particularly with Saudi-backed Newcastle poised to kick-on next season and the UEFA’s Champions League reforms likely to offer the Premier League a fifth spot post-2024. Now is a good time to push on.
Spurs are the more likely to do so by virtue of a two-point gap, as well as a leading manager and some world-class players. As any of their supporters would tell Carragher, though, take nothing for granted