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Apr 8, 2006

Worthy of the prize?

TOTTENHAM: 2 MANCHESTER CITY: 1

Arsenal's stunning return to form of late has left many believing they will eventually assume their 'rightful' position in the Premiership's top four, but their closest neighbours are refusing to go away.

With tension apparently beginning to dent Tottenham's Champions League push in recent weeks, many viewed last weekend's thumping defeat at Newcastle as the turning point in the race for fourth spot in the Premiership and had Martin Jol's men failed to respond in this game against City, such obituaries would have been apt.

However, as Tottenham overcame their nerves to see off Stuart Pearce's men with an impressive attacking performance at White Hart Lane, their five point advantage over the Gunners was restored. Maybe, just maybe, Arsenal's recent bulging bubble can still be burst by their closest rivals after all and is if that is to be the case, a new face at the top may not be a bad thing for the game.

With the top four settled and racing away from the rest in terms of the finances they get from the Champions League, the only way a club of Tottenham's diminished stature can move onto the next level is with the cash injection that would come from a season among Europe's elite. Everton had their chance to do as much last summer, but were not good enough when their Champions League qualifier came around, yet Spurs have more about them than David Moyes' no-hopers.

And in comparison to a couple of the sides who have represented the Premiership in Europe this season - Bolton and Middlesbrough spring to mind - Martin Jol's men are more worthy of the prize as they have a fan base that would appreciate the sight of the continents best coming into their lair.

Proof that Tottenham should be hailed as one of the true giants of English football is provided as the 'Sold Out' signs are hoisted at White Hart Lane for each and every home game. As that support has remained constant even though the team have flattered to deceive more often than not in recent years, clubs like Middlesbrough and even Chelsea can only look on in envy.

So if manager Martin Jol could find a way of guiding Spurs into next season's Champions League, tickets for their European games would be among the hottest in London come the autumn, yet there has been the odd crack beginning to appear in their make-up of late.

The grumblings of back-up striker Jermain Defoe continue to be a problem Tottenham could do without as rumours of his discontent are rarely far away, while it seems that Mido's promising stay in North London may not have long to run. Edgar Davids is another heading out of the club this summer, so if Spurs were to miss out on a European spot, all their good work of this season undone.

As they enter their final handful of fixtures, some of their fans are already beginning to readjust their sights, accepting that their North London neighbours will retain their recent edge over them come the end of the campaign.

Indeed, the prospect of Spurs finishing fourth and being denied Champions League football if Arsenal are crowned European champions is almost too much for the White Hart faithful, so a top six finish and a UEFA Cup spot would be welcomed by all. With that in mind, Saturday lunchtime's encounter against Manchester City fell very much into the 'must win' category and with Robbie Keane on their side, such an outcome was always probable.

Regular readers of the Irish media will confirm that Keane has been forced to stomach a huge amount of abuse in a career that has already seen him break his nation's scoring record at international level. The 25-year-old, who recently assumed the role of Ireland captain, has been in the form of his life of late and if Tottenham are going to pull off what would be a surprise top four finish, the Dubliner needs to take them there.

Keane's stunning effort seven minutes before the break deserved to open the scoring, only for a flailing hand of David James to divert the effort onto the bar. It was a redeeming moment for a keeper who had one of his calamitous moments as he did his best to hand Tottenham an opener with some extravagant footwork on the edge of the box after 20 minutes. That mistake did not cost him as it might have done, but the Spurs fans didn't waste any time to undermine his confidence further with a jovial cry of 'England's No.4'.

The impressive Keane was at the heart of the action again as Spurs opening the scoring two minutes before the break, with his turn and shot parried by James into the path of Paul Stalteri who bundled the ball home.

When Michael Carrick doubled Tottenham's lead two minutes after the restart, it seemed the doubters of their Champions League ambitions would be silenced again, but unlike Arsenal, Martin Jol's men don't have the ability to kill off teams when they have them at their mercy.

Georgios Samaras gave City hope as he flicked home from close range moments after Carrick's goal and while both sides had chances to score after that, the biggest threat to Tottenham in the closing stages was their nerves.

They clung on for the win they so badly needed, leaving Martin Jol to admit he will turn to alcohol to calm his nerves as he takes in the rest of the weekend's games. 'I believe in my mind that we will finish fourth this season,' he states.

'To get into the top four would be an incredible achievement and no one expected us to still be there at this stage of the season. We have a nice cushion now and may be in an even stronger position when all the games are played this weekend.

'Finishing in the top four is all in our hands now and we can sit back with a glass of larger and watch the rest of the games this weekend safe in the knowledge that we have done our job.

'Arsenal have a good squad and are playing well at the moment, but we are five points ahead of them so we must be doing something right. I had a friend of mine over from Italy a few weeks back and he was saying 'what a team that is'. He was talking about Arsenal and they are a great team, but look at the table and you will find us ahead of them for three quarters of the season. It is a great effort from us.'

City boss Stuart Pearce was highly critical of his side after their poor showing against Middlesbrough last weekend, but was more content on this occasion. 'I can get in the car this evening and be disappointed by the result, but the attitude was so much better than last week,' he said.

'Not one of the players came to see me about the criticism I threw at the team after last weekend's performance so they knew they needed to respond. We are lacking a bit of confidence, but as soon as we get a win, the weight of the world will be lifted off us.'

So the Jol household may be the scene a major booze-up if Arsenal are beaten at Old Trafford tomorrow as just for once, it is left to the rest to feel the pressure after Tottenham did all they could to make this a perfect weekend.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Robbie Keane
He may not have the captain's armband at Spurs, but the Ireland skipper is the real leader of this Tottenham effort. This was another inspiring display of skill and passion from the Dubliner.

FOOD WATCH: A stunning effort from the Spurs catering team saw them put on a fine full English breakfast for this lunchtime kick-off.

JOURNO MOAN: A press room debate over how vast numbers of 'reporters' from fictional Far East newspapers are getting into the press box was interrupted when an elderly Japanese woman carrying a bag full of shopping from Tesco's arrived with a scrap of paper claiming: 'Mi fend say I can com to wach mat'. The press room staff duly removed her and her odd looking daughter and they should do the same with the other freeloaders who get in the way every week.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: With five games to go, Tottenham look secure in the top six at least and as they have not qualified for European football through the league in almost 25 years, that would be a decent achievement. With Manchester United, Arsenal and Bolton still to play, a top four finish remains unlikely, but they should not be too distraught if they finish fifth.


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