Tottenham’s trip to Chelsea this Sunday is unquestionably the biggest game of the Premier League weekend. It might be the biggest of the Premier League season too.
With Manchester City out of sight, Liverpool and Manchester United highly likely to join them in the Champions League and Arsenal concentrating on the Europa League, there’s only one major issue remaining at the top: fourth place. That battle, like Sunday’s contest at Stamford Bridge, is Tottenham against Chelsea and both sides have heavily been involved in the “battle for fourth” over the years.
The first Premier League campaign where fourth place was rewarded with Champions League qualification was back in 2001-02, when Newcastle finished there with relative ease. The following season, however, featured unquestionably the most significant battle for fourth. On the final day of 2002-03, two sides were gunning for the final Champions League position: Chelsea and Liverpool. Both were on 64 points but Chelsea had a superior goal difference ahead of the clash at Stamford Bridge, meaning the draw favoured them. Nevertheless, this was a play-off for the Champions League.
Among Chelsea supporters, this is now recognised as the most important match in the club’s recent history: Chelsea were in dire straits financially and the players had been informed many would be sold if the club didn’t qualify for the Champions League. It was widely billed as the “£20 million match” but in retrospect, it was probably worth more like £1 billion.
After a 2-1 victory courtesy of goals from Marcel Desailly and Jesper Gronkjaer, Roman Abramovich bought the club weeks later. It’s generally understood that he wanted a club competing in the Champions League; therefore, had Sami Hyypia’s opener also been the winner, the subsequent course of English football may have been extremely different.
The 2003-04 season should have featured a similar final day decider because Liverpool and Newcastle faced off sitting fourth and fifth respectively. Unfortunately, Newcastle had contrived to collect only two points from their previous three games, all against bottom-half clubs, and therefore Liverpool already had a sufficient points gap.
There was something of a complication the following season because Everton clinched fourth ahead of city rivals Liverpool as Rafael Benitez’s side were distracted by their European Cup run. After their legendary comeback against Milan in the final, UEFA changed their rules to allow Liverpool back into the competition from the first qualifying round. Meanwhile, Everton failed in their own qualification process, meaning all the previous season’s work went unrewarded. Incidentally, this confusion prompted UEFA to change the rules permanently, formally declaring that any champions would be allowed to defend the trophy in future if finishing outside the usual qualification places, at the expense of the fourth-placed side. This would have major ramifications in 2011-12.
The 2005-06 season saw the most infamous battle for fourth. The situation was similar to the previous year: the underdogs in a local rivalry, Tottenham, appeared set to finish above the side competing in the Champions League final, Arsenal, but there were two major differences. Arsenal would lose the Champions League final but had already re-qualified anyway courtesy of a victory over Wigan in their final game at Highbury and, more crucially, a Tottenham defeat at West Ham.
Tottenham almost struggled to field 11 players in that fixture because their squad had been decimated by a mystery illness overnight, with the finger pointed at the previous evening’s lasagna dinner at the team hotel. Edgar Davids, Teemu Tainio, Michael Dawson, Aaron Lennon, Robbie Keane and Michael Carrick were all badly affected. Carrick, in particular, was in a terrible way: he could barely run throughout his final appearance for Spurs and was substituted after an hour.
Tottenham had requested a postponement until the following day, but then suggested a delay of four hours. Both requests were denied, Tottenham were forced to field a significantly under-strength side and conspiracy theories about the footballing allegiance of the relevant hotel’s kitchen staff continued throughout the summer across North London.
The following three campaigns were dominated by the so-called “big four” of Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United re-qualifying for the Champions League without significant challenges from others, but Liverpool’s sudden collapse in 2009-10 resulted in a two-way battle between Tottenham and Manchester City.
That year, the race came down to the penultimate game of the campaign between the two at the Etihad, where Tottenham produced a brilliant, positive and attack-minded display featuring classic wing-play from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon, with Peter Crouch scoring the game’s only goal. Tottenham were celebrating with champagne in the dressing room afterwards: David Bentley threw icy water all over Harry Redknapp, an incident he claims effectively ended his Tottenham career. Peculiarly, the following season’s game confirmed Manchester City’s qualification in an almost identical manner: it was another 1-0 result and another Crouch goal, at the same end… only this time into his own net.
Tottenham were the fall-guys again the following campaign thanks to Chelsea’s victory over Bayern Munich in the Champions League final. After the Liverpool farce of 2005, UEFA had revised their guidelines and therefore Chelsea re-qualified for the Champions League as holders, meaning Spurs’ fourth-place finish wasn’t good enough.
In truth, Tottenham only had themselves to blame having suffered a monumental collapse: in February they were genuinely challenging for the title and travelled to the Emirates fully 10 points ahead of Arsenal. Then, despite going 2-0 up they contrived to lose 5-2, which proved the turning point: Arsenal won 18 points in their next seven matches while Tottenham collected just six, so Arsenal overtook Spurs and confirmed their position with a nervy final-day win at West Brom. With the “battle for fourth” effectively becoming the “battle for third,” this condemned Tottenham to their uncertain fate, which was eventually settled in Munich.
In 2012-13, Arsenal again pipped Tottenham to the crucial final place, despite losing a seemingly crucial head-to-head clash at White Hart Lane in March, which had sent Spurs seven points clear. Arsenal’s final day victory at Newcastle, courtesy of Laurent Koscielny’s goal, proved crucial.
In this respect, 2013-14 and 2014-15 were largely non-events while 2015-16 saw Manchester City and Manchester United finishing level on points for fourth, but City had wrapped up the battle before United’s final game. Similarly, last season’s contest looked close on paper: Manchester City came third on 78 points, Liverpool were fourth on 76 and Arsenal got 75 but realistically, Arsenal had fallen out of contention long beforehand, with only a late-season burst making their efforts look respectable.
This season’s “battle for fourth,” then, may come down to this Sunday’s game. Tottenham are five points ahead of Chelsea and in much better form. The “Spursy” narrative angle has probably been overplayed in recent years but their recent history in such skirmishes is hardly a source of optimism.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.