The Big Match

Football: Spurs, Magpies going in opposite ways

Newcastle United's English defender Jamaal Lascelles (right) reacting on the pitch after the EPL match between Aston Villa and Newcastle United on May 7, 2016.
Newcastle United's English defender Jamaal Lascelles (right) reacting on the pitch after the EPL match between Aston Villa and Newcastle United on May 7, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Tottenham aim for rare finish above Arsenal, Newcastle stare at abyss of mismanagement

It was 1995. Very few in the insular world of English football had heard of a bespectacled Frenchman called Arsene Wenger. The manager Arsenal were preparing to hire was Bolton Wanderers' Bruce Rioch.

They finished below Tottenham. They often did in those days.

It has not happened since. Until now, probably. All Mauricio Pochettino's team have to do is avoid defeat at demoted Newcastle - a club who may be too preoccupied by warring with themselves to concentrate on their visitors - and they will be officially North London's best side.

It would also mean that, for the first time since 1963, they finish in the country's top two. Win on Tyneside and they will also have a club record 73 Premier League points.

However, Pochettino's men are not in the best shape. They are without the suspended Dele Alli and Mousa Dembele, and have not won in three games.

Yet their problems pale into insignificance compared to Newcastle's. The Magpies were relegated on Wednesday, their pain all the greater because their arch-rivals Sunderland sent them down.

At the end of last season, when they dodged the drop, owner Mike Ashley talked of targeting a top-eight finish and a cup win.

Suffice to say, his ambitions have gone unrealised. This has been one of the most embarrassing, ignominious, avoidable relegations.

Ashley, rightly criticised for cutting costs in previous seasons, has invested £82 million (S$162 million) in new signings over the past 12 months.

Now, only three of them - Chancel Mbemba, Georginio Wijnaldum and Andros Townsend - even figure in the first-choice team.

In many cases, they have bought the wrong footballers. They certainly appointed the wrong manager, in Steve McClaren, and persevered with him for too long.

His successor deserves to escape the blame. The concern is that Rafa Benitez has a get-out clause in his contract, so this is potentially his last game in charge.

Newcastle's most exciting appointment since Bobby Robson could be gone after 10 games. Their future is uncertain; Tottenham's, with Pochettino signing a five-year contract, is far more clear.

So there could be a hostile atmosphere at St James' Park - not towards Tottenham nor aimed at Benitez, but some of the underachieving players and the powerbrokers who have mis-run Newcastle.

The Premier League will lose two of its great institutional clubs, in Newcastle and Aston Villa. As recently as 2004, both were in the top six while Spurs finished 14th.

Now Spurs are a rising force. If a civil war rages at Newcastle, Tottenham have to show the professionalism to pick up the points.

Because, having achieved so much this season, it would be an anti-climactic end if they were to lose and allow Arsenal, who host Aston Villa, to overhaul them.

The chances are that the driven Pochettino will not let that happen.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 14, 2016, with the headline 'Spurs, Magpies going in opposite ways'. Print Edition | Subscribe