Arsenal and Tottenham can't afford a season out of the Champions League, and the fallout from the North London Derby could be long and painful.
It's an odd feature of Chelsea, as they face a fight to qualify for the Champions League after Rafael Benitez's disastrous tenure, that they are probably the only of the top clubs that could stand to finish in fifth place for two seasons in a row. If Manchester United did so, there would be austerity and the word "decline" being bandied around. If Manchester City fell out of the top four for two years running, there would be howls of derision at the money they had spent, pundits insisting they were still a long way from Europe's elite clubs. For Chelsea, though... nothing. Nobody will doubt they will challenge for the title next year, nobody will have concerns about joining the club, and they can cope without the money.
And their two rivals, Tottenham and Arsenal, are two clubs that really cannot stand to drop out of the top four. Whether through a lack of money or trophies, Arsenal have struggled to attract top talent to the Emirates and have instead been forced to cobble together a squad of journeymen from around Europa League-level clubs in Europe, the result of which is the predicament they currently find themselves in. A combination of the new Premier League TV deal and some new sponsorship arrangements, combined with the on-pitch troubles proving the necessity of revitalising the squad, could leave them able and willing to spend money. Yet if a long trophy drought is added to a fifth-placed finish, Ashburton Grove no longer looks a desirable address for any footballers of the quality they require.
Tottenham can ill afford to miss out either. They have no recent history of competing at this level beyond one season, and so failing to do so would have the vultures circling over their best players and give them a severe handicap in being able to replace them. The departure of Luka Modric and their struggle to replace him would be replicated with Gareth Bale, and the potential to build a team capable of competing with the Mancunian duopoly would be gone forever.
The stakes are high in the North London Derby, then. Tottenham enjoy a comfortable lead over Arsenal as it stands, and the game is likely to be pivotal in deciding who will fall out of the top four. The chances of a draw being disastrous for both sides are lessened by Everton and Liverpool falling further behind, so it looks like a simple affair: Arsenal must avoid defeat at all costs. Falling out of the top four is bad enough, but to do so thanks to a rare defeat at the hands of their rivals, who go on to take their place - it's not a good look. It reeks of a changing of the guard.
Yet above all, the reason both teams cannot afford to miss out should actually have prevented them from even being in contention in the first place - both teams are hugely flawed. They require the extra money and prestige of Champions League football not to find the final piece of the puzzle, but to repair their broken teams. Neither seems to operate as it should at the moment - Tottenham, without a top-class striker and a lack of creativity in midfield, struggle to break down any team that primarily wishes to keep them out, while Arsenal are not good enough in most positions on the pitch.
In other years, those flaws would have been enough to keep both of them from competing, but at the top level, the Premier League is weak, and it gives both clubs a chance to right their recent wrongs. Both have suffered as a result of some austere business in the transfer market in recent years - though Arsenal's wage bill has risen, both have lost important players and not replaced them, with little net outlay on transfers if any - and wondered why they struggle.
At present, the momentum is with Tottenham, although the same reason means they are more vulnerable in the event of a defeat: Gareth Bale. Spurs need only look to their local rivals in the past two years to see the benefits a talismanic attacking presence can bring to an otherwise mediocre or ill-functioning team, and they need only look to them now to see the dangers of losing them. They have already had that struggle with Modric - Lewis Holtby may have been responsible for more than a few fluttered eyelashes from the Spurs faithful, but so far it's mostly been for, well, non-footballing reasons.
Arsenal will probably not lose anyone from their squad should they drop out, so the setback would not be quite as severe at first, although the long-term effects could be equally traumatic. The North London Derby has long been one of the jewels in the Premier League crown, producing more spectacular games than any other rivalry in recent years. Many of them have been inconsequential and ultimately futile - this one will not be. The fallout could last for years.
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