LIVERPOOL: The battle for the ‘other’ two Champions League slots is an all-London affair. Just as last season it is the same three clubs – Arsenal (63pts), Chelsea (62) and Tottenham (61) – in contention though Arsenal have played one game more.
Last season Tottenham were denied entry to the elite because Chelsea usurped them by virtue of winning the final against Bayern in Munich. At least that possibility is off the menu this season but, otherwise, the race is tighter than ever.
Chelsea lost two potentially decisive points when a goal from Luis Suarez in the sixth minute of stoppage time pulled them back to 2:2 in the last game of the weekend.
Oscar in the first half and Eden Hazard from a penalty in the second sandwiched a goal from Daniel Sturridge which had given Liverpool brief hope. Sturridge had appeared as a second-half substitute and made an instant impact against his old club.
But a silly handball offence by Luis Suarez conceded the decisive penalty before the Uruguayan made amends at the end with his 30th goal of the season in all competitions. He is the first Liverpool player to hit that total since Fernando Torres five years ago. Suarez will not have the heard the last of this game after biting the upper arm of Brane Ivanovic in an increasingly tense second halfl.
The latest round in the top-four contest hd started at 3pm BST on Saturday. Arsenal maintained their grip on third place with a win at Fulham while Everton, by the admission of manager David Moyes, dropped out of contention after losing at Sunderland.
Arsenal knew it was going to their day when Fulham were reduced to 10 men after 12 minutes. Midfielder Steve Sidwell was sent off in only his first game back from suspension after having been sent off against QPR. This time he earned straight red for a reckless challenge on Mikel Arteta.
The Gunners also finished the game with 10 men after striker Olivier Giroud was sent off in the last minute. By then, however, they were assured all three points. Per Mertesacker scored the decisive goal just before half-time after Laurent Koscielny headed on a Theo Walcott free kick.
Further down the table Everton’s hopes of reaching the Champions League were effectively ended by a 1-0 defeat at Sunderland who thus recorded a second win in three games under controversial new manager Paolo Di Canio.
Stephane Sessegnon, a hero in the previous weekend’s derby win at Newcastle, scored the goal which prompted Moyes to say: “We won’t get a top-four position now. Every game is becoming must-win so I can’t see that happening. This was an important game for us and we weren’t able to take any points from it.”
Next up, early this afternoon were Tottenham. In front of their won fans three goals in seven late minutes plus the tactical expertise of manager Andre Villas-Boas turned looming defeat against Manchester City into a 3-1 win.
FA Cup finalists City were cruising after a fifth-minute opening goal from Samir Nasri. But their complacent failure to kill off the game with more goals against a below-form Spurs proved fatal.
At half-time AVB switched fit-again Gareth Bale to wide on the right wing and brought on Jermain Defoe in attack.
In the 75th minute Bale provided a phenomenal cross from the right with the outside of his left foot and Clint Dempsey stole in behind an unaware Vincent Kompany to score at the far post.
Kompany, in his 150th City game, was at fault again for Spurs’ second. He allowed Defoe to step inside him and fire home an angled shot. That was in the 80th minute. Three more minutes and Tom Huddlestone split City’s defence and Bale darted in from the right to slip the ball beyond keeper Joe Hart.
Victory, agreed Defoe afterwards, had put Spurs right back in the Champions League mix. He said: “We knew it would be difficult but we shi=owed great character and the finish was unbelievable.”
Explaining the tactical turnaround, Bale added: “City don’t play with wingers so at half-time the boss said there was space for us out wide so we played on that. As soon as the first goal went in the crowd lifted us and what happened was massive for us.”
That left the Champions League qualifying stage clear for Chelsea to strut their stuff – or not.
One footnote to events at White Hart Lane: City’s defeat meant that United can formally secure the Premier League title, with four games then remaining, if they beat Aston Villa at Old Trafford tonight [Monday].
** The Liverpool-Chelsea game was preceded by one minute’s applause for the victims of the Boston Marathon explosion but also, and especially, for Anne Williams. She was one of the leading campaigners for justice to the victims of the Hillsborough disaster – who had included her son Kevin.