The race for top four took one of its most significant twists yet on Thursday night, with Tottenham’s crucial win over Arsenal ensuring it will go right down to the wire.
Mikel Arteta’s side could have secured Champions League qualification by beating their north London rivals, but after going two goals and a man down inside the opening 37 minutes they were eventually handed a 3-0 drubbing.
The Gunners’ grip on fourth place is hanging by a thread heading into the final two games of the season, as Spurs now trail them by just a single point, but who will hold their nerve and get over the line? Sportsmail has taken a look at how the top-four showdown could play out.
Tottenham’s 3-0 win over Arsenal on Thursday night has blown the top-four race wide open
The Gunners now sit just one point ahead of Spurs heading into their final two fixtures
After their derby triumph on Thursday night, it’s fair to say momentum has shifted towards Spurs at the climax of this gripping battle for Champions League.
Antonio Conte’s men will be buoyant when they host Burnley on Sunday, especially given a victory can lift them above Arsenal into the all-important fourth spot.
Should they get it, the pressure will firmly be on their north London foes when they make the trip to Newcastle the following day.
The Gunners are reeling from a crushing defeat in what was their most important outing of the season, meaning Mikel Arteta has a huge job on his hands in ensuring they bounce back at St James’ Park.
By the time they line up against the Magpies they may need three points to climb back into fourth, which would make for a very nervy evening on Tyneside.
There could of course be some more twists and turns along the way, but for now Spurs are carrying the momentum heading into the final two games.
Momentum has well and truly shifted in Spurs’ favour at the business end of the campaign
Antonio Conte’s men can climb above Arsenal into fourth place if they beat Burnley on Sunday
Mikel Arteta and Co would then go away to Newcastle on Monday night in need of a victory
While neither side has to come up against a top-half team in their remaining fixtures, it is Arsenal who have the slightly tougher run-in of the two.
The Gunners’ trip to Newcastle on Monday night is considerably harder than Spurs’ meetings with Burnley – who have won twice away from home all season – and relegated Norwich.
SPORTSMAIL’S TOP-FOUR PREDICTION
Sunday 15 May: Tottenham 3-1 Burnley
Monday 16 May: Newcastle 2-2 Arsenal
Sunday 22 May: Arsenal 2-0 Everton
Sunday 22 May: Tottenham 4-0 Norwich
4. Tottenham – 71pts
5. Arsenal – 70pts
Since his appointment in November, Eddie Howe has only suffered two defeats in 13 matches at St James’ Park – and they came against title contenders Manchester City and Liverpool.
His Magpies outfit are hard to beat on their own turf and can now play with the shackles off after mathematically securing their top-flight safety on Wednesday night. Thus, Arsenal could well have their work cut out.
Their final outing against Everton will be a more straightforward affair if Frank Lampard’s side visit the Emirates next Sunday with their own safety in the bag, something they can achieve by bettering Leeds’ result this weekend.
If not, the Toffees will be as desperate for the three points as Arsenal while scrapping it out to stay in the Premier League, meaning they will fight tooth and nail to leave with a result.
The same can be said for Burnley when they take on Spurs this Sunday, with Mike Jackson’s men currently trailing Everton by two points and hovering just above Leeds in the relegation zone.
Nevertheless, Conte will be the happier of the two managers when taking a glance at each team’s schedule.
Injuries and suspensions
Rob Holding’s sending off in the north London derby means Arsenal will be without him when they go to Newcastle on Monday night, while defensive partner Gabriel is also a doubt after limping off injured towards the end of the defeat.
Ben White was left on the bench after only recently recovering from a thigh problem, leaving Arteta with a selection dilemma in defence.
Rob Holding will be unavailable at St James’ Park after his sending off on Thursday night
His defensive partner Gabriel also hobbled off late on against Tottenham with an injury
‘Gabi is not normally a player who asks to get off the pitch,’ the Arsenal boss said after their 3-0 loss.
‘He felt something but hopefully, it’s not much because obviously having Rob out and Ben with no training sessions, we are really short in that position. It’s a muscular problem and we’ll have to assess it.’
Arteta is also likely to be without both Kieran Tierney and Thomas Partey for the conclusion of their top-four bid, with the pair unlikely to play again this season.
Tierney is continuing to recover after undergoing surgery on a knee injury last month, which could keep him out for the remainder of the campaign.
As for Partey, the midfielder has been out since sustaining a thigh problem at the end of April, and Arteta does not expect him to feature again in 2021/22.
With Partey unavailable, Granit Xhaka needs to ensure he doesn’t pick up a booking against Newcastle, as he would earn a suspension for their final outing at home to Everton after receiving 10 yellow cards.
However, Spurs are also dealing with a number of injury concerns heading into their last two matches. Cristian Romero was ruled out of Thursday’s win over Arsenal after damaging his hip against Liverpool last week, and Conte will be desperate for his star defender to return.
‘In the game against Liverpool he received a hit on his hip,’ the Spurs boss said. ‘After the game he had pain and is not right to recover.’
Spurs have been left without defender Cristian Romero after he picked up a knock vs Liverpool
Romero’s knock could prove to be a minor issue, but Conte has also been left without four key first-team players for the rest of the season.
Japhet Tanganga, Matt Doherty and Oliver Skipp are all unavailable for Spurs’ closing fixtures, while Sergio Reguilon is also unlikely to be involved.
In terms of selection troubles, Arsenal and Tottenham both have them ahead of the final two games.
It can be considered both a pro and con, yet Arsenal are slugging it out in the top-four dogfight with a much younger team than their city rivals.
62 per cent of the Gunners’ squad consists of players under the age of 25, with a nucleus of dynamic youngsters inspiring them to 10 wins in their last 15 matches.
The likes of Bukayo Saka, Emile Smith-Rowe, Aaron Ramsdale, Ben White and Gabriel have been outstanding this season and cemented themselves as key men for Arteta, however they are all age 24 or younger and somewhat lacking experience.
In comparison, only 45 per cent of Spurs’ ranks contains under-25s. They also deployed four of those youngsters on Monday night, while Arsenal had seven in their starting line-up.
Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville felt the gulf in age was there for all to see on Monday night, saying on his podcast: ‘After 1-0, this crowd were all over the place – it was mayhem after the first goal. At that point, Arsenal did wilt. They capitulated in that part of the game.
Gary Neville felt Arsenal’s crop of young players crumbled in a red-hot atmosphere at Spurs
Conte, meanwhile, has a more mature and experienced Tottenham squad at his disposal
‘Once you create that carnival atmosphere in a ground like this, and I think calling it a hostile and fierce atmosphere is fair, it was testing tonight. I always felt like this would be a special game because of what’s on it, why it was cancelled earlier in the season and then what’s at stake.
‘It was red hot in here in terms of the atmosphere and it got to Arsenal and those young players. They looked mentally weaker in that period of the game from 10 minutes to 35 minutes, it just got to them. It can happen.’
Arsenal’s young stars will be thrown straight into another hostile atmosphere when they go away to Newcastle on Monday night, and a similar collapse at St James’ Park could prove fatal.
Their select few of experienced pros, including the likes of Xhaka and Alexandre Lacazette, need to step up as leaders in the dressing room and ensure their greenhorn colleagues hold their nerve on Tyneside.
If they can come away with a vital set of three points, momentum will shift back in their favour and confidence will be restored ahead of a pivotal final encounter with Everton.
As for Spurs, they have the luxury of playing in front of their own supporters again when Burnley visit on Sunday, while a trip to doomed Norwich on the final day is unlikely to provide a challenging atmosphere.
When it comes to the track records of their coaches, Spurs will be the more confident of taking maximum points from their remaining games and heaping the pressure on Arsenal.
Put simply, Conte is a serial winner with superior experience in getting trophy-chasing teams over the line. He claimed three consecutive titles with Juventus, the Premier League and FA Cup with Chelsea, and another Serie A crown during his stint at Inter Milan. Quite the CV.
The 52-year-old is well acclimatised to the pressure that comes with these anxious and daunting end-of-season run-ins. Arteta, on the other hand, has never been in this position before.
The Spurs boss is well acclimatised to these gripping end-of-season run-ins unlike Arteta
In his first two campaigns at the helm Arsenal didn’t come close to finishing in the top four, languishing down in eighth place on both occasions. Last season even qualification for Europe’s B-list competitions was beyond them.
He performed miracles to win the FA Cup in 2020, masterminding shock victories over Manchester City and Chelsea to clinch his first trophy as a manager. Yet his big-game credentials can still be questioned two years on, especially following Thursday’s capitulation.
The trip to St James’ Park is another colossal fixture for Arteta and he has to get it right this time. In Conte he is up against one of European football’s most decorated coaches, but it’s the new manager on the block who holds the aces in this fascinating joust for Champions League.