The last word: A north London rivalry

On Saturday, Tottenham Hotspurs won another English Premier League match, this time 2-0 against Birmingham City. Nothing spectacular about that, perhaps. But the game was seen as a must-win for most Spurs fans, because Tottenham is having, by its standards, an extraordinary season. The win at St. Andrews meant the team in blue-and-white returned to fourth place in the Premiership standings, taking the spot from arch-rival Arsenal, which had recorded a 3-0 win over Charlton Athletic earlier in the day. The weekend's results show how much Tottenham has improved as a team over the course of the season, and how Arsenal's league campaign is returning to form after nearly falling off the rails, but also the importance placed on finishing not only first, second or even third, but also fourth. Until a few years ago, coming fourth in anything was never really seen as a massive success. Sure, in the 20-team Premier League fourth position meant you were one of the best teams, and would likely qualify for the UEFA Cup, but nothing more. All that changed in 2002 when UEFA announced that the team that finished in fourth place in the Premiership would be given the opportunity to qualify for the Champions League. European soccer's governing body had caused enough of a stir in 1998 when it permitted the team that finished second in England to enter a competition that had previously only been open to the champion of each country in Europe (although that allowed Manchester United to qualify and win its famous treble in 1999). A few years later the team that finished third was allowed to play a qualifier to get in to the esteemed competition. But to come fourth and be considered a champion seemed nigh on ridiculous. It isn't even worth an Olympic medal. This will not worry either Tottenham or Arsenal, who have held a healthy rivalry for more than 100 years. Since the glorious title-winning season of 1961, Spurs have had little league success. The club is famous for pretty football that has rarely been good or consistent enough to show stability in the league. But this year, for this first time since the launch of the Premier League in 1992, Tottenham could break into the top four, and deny Arsenal a place in the world's most prestigious club competition. The win on Saturday, coming on the heels of a heartbreaking, last-minute loss at Chelsea the previous week, showcased the strengths of this year's Tottenham team. The center-back pairing of Ledley King and newcomer Michael Dawson have kept things tight at the back. Michael Carrick, always the understudy of Joe Cole at West Ham, has been a revelation in midfield, as has Aaron Lennon, the scorer of a fine goal on Saturday. And strikers Mido, Robbie Keane and Jermaine Defoe have been taking their chances up front. The one worry that Spurs fans will have at the end of the season is Arsenal's form in this year's Champions League. The Gunners have been doing incredibly well, beating Spanish giants Real Madrid in the last round to book a tie against Italian champion Juventus. If, however unlikely it seemed at the beginning of the season, Spurs finish fourth, and Arsenal wins the Champions League but comes in fifth in the Premiership, it will be Arsenal and not Spurs who qualify for next season's competition.