Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham are locked in an increasingly fascinating tussle for a top-four finish even though the Reds forward likely to take the immediate headlines
By Wayne Veysey at Anfield
While attention focused on the flaws in the genius of Luis Suarez, the race for the Champions League places took on another dimension.
The three-way fight between Chelsea, Arsenal and Tottenham for two places is increasingly tasty. Mouth-watering enough, perhaps, for Suarez to want to sink his teeth into it.
|SPURS BALED OUT
| GREG STOBART AT WHITE HART LANE
|This looked like it could be the weekend when Tottenham’s chances of a top four finish faded towards black – but Andre Villas-Boas’ side did their part with a comeback victory against Manchester City.
For much of the season, Spurs have looked in pole position in the three-way London shoot-out for two Champions League places, but their season had begun to crumble in familiar fashion in recent weeks – and for 70-odd minutes City looked to be landing another blow here at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
Yet Spurs showed a strength of character that will be crucial in their final five league games of the campaign, and three goals in seven second-half minutes could change the whole momentum of a season that, in AVB parlance, was heading in a ‘downward spiral’.
Gareth Bale was only half-fit after an ankle injury but made the difference with a superb assist for Clint Dempsey’s equaliser and a delightfully dinked goal of his own to seal the victory.
With Spurs now back on track, a trip to struggling Wigan next weekend provides further opportunity to put pressure on Arsenal and Chelsea, and in Bale they have arguably the best match-winner in English football to try and see them home.
A title race procession and the seemingly inevitable relegations of QPR and Reading have robbed the final weeks of the Premier League season of much potential drama.
Indeed, had Spurs conceded all three points to Manchester City then there was a good argument for saying that it would be the most boring finale to a top-flight campaign in recent memory.
But the Londoners’ stunning comeback win and Suarez’s equaliser six minutes into added time against Chelsea have ensured that the battle for a top-four finish should be a compelling one.
With 63 points, Arsenal have a narrow numerical advantage but both fourth-placed Chelsea (62) and Tottenham (61) in fifth have a game in hand on Arsene Wenger’s Champions League perennials.
History would suggest that the Gunners and the Blues have what it takes to haul themselves over the finish line ahead of Andre Villas-Boas’ outsiders.
But this current Tottenham crop showed in the first of Sunday’s two thrilling encounters that they should not be underestimated. They have a resilience that was lacking in so many of their predecessors and, in fit-again Gareth Bale, they have what arguably their two capital-city rivals do not have – a player who can fashion victories almost single-handedly.
Had Spurs failed to come back from behind against the champions then it would have been hard to see them elbowing aside Arsenal and Chelsea.
Instead, the race for the minimum €29 million Champions League pot of gold looks like it will go down to the wire.
All three sides can point to a degree of momentum.
Despite their seemingly faltering form of the last month, skewed by their Europa League exit to minnows Basel, Tottenham have taken seven points out of a possible nine in the league.
Arsenal have responded impressively to their derby defeat to Spurs in February by sweeping aside teams in the bottom half of the table, winning five games out of six and drawing the other against Everton.
Chelsea have taken four points in four days from two tricky away games and, like Spurs, have captured seven out of a possible nine.
By dropping two late points against Liverpool, Rafael Benitez’s team have given their two fellow London sides a considerable shot in the arm.
On paper, the pivotal clash looks to be Spurs’ trip to Stamford Bridge on May 8. Arsenal have the easiest run-in of the trio and their match against Manchester United on April 28 could come after Sir Alex Ferguson’s side have already been crowned champions and have nothing for which to play but pride and win bonuses.
Chelsea have the strongest all-round squad of the three clubs but Benitez will have to continue to juggle his resources as they prepare for a two-legged European semi-final.
Whoever comes out on top, the three-way adds some allure to what was becoming a damp squib.
Few might feel like thanking Suarez tonight but he deserves a nod of gratitude for adding an unpredictable twist to the season finale.