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Top Arsenal & Spurs stars set for Euro heartache

Ben Blackmore May 17, 2013
Gareth Bale would be a major miss from next year's Champions League © AP

The dreaded North London shootout has arrived. This Sunday, only one of Arsenal and Tottenham will buy a ticket to the Champions League, leaving the other to contemplate life in the Europa.

Following Tuesday's victory over Wigan, Arsenal's fate is in their own hands, but it is they who have the more difficult task - away to Newcastle rather than home to Sunderland this weekend.

Come Sunday evening only one set of players will be laughing, so we take a look (from back to front) at the ten best talents set to miss out on Champions League football next season.

Jan Vertonghen

Given that Hugo Lloris and Wojciech Szczesny have proved about as reliable as a Katie Price wedding vow this season, we leap straight to the defenders, where a certain Belgian named Vertonghen has carved out an impressive first season in the Premier League for Spurs. It's worth noting that Tottenham's rearguard has been more stingy on home soil than champions Manchester United in the 2012-13 campaign, but Jan the Man isn't all about the boring stuff.

Delighting fans with his odd resemblance to manager Andre Villas-Boas, Vertonghen has also developed a reputation for scoring goals, bagging six in total including a brace at Anfield. There have also been four assists from the elegant left-footer, meaning he has played a part in ten goals for Spurs this season - not bad for a centre-back.

Laurent Koscielny

We're still not entirely sure about Koscielny, although it's difficult to respect any centre-half whose hair has been styled so precisely that it puts Bacary Sagna to shame. What cannot be ignored is that Arsenal have conceded only five goals in their last nine league games, a run that has propelled them towards the top-four.

The fact that Koscielny has been an ever-present during that spell, and been partnered almost exclusively by the lorry-like Per Mertesacker, makes the defender's contribution all the more impressive. Spurs fans need only remember how hospitable the Arsenal defence was at White Hart Lane to realise the void left when Koscielny doesn't play.

Kyle Walker

When fit, there are few better midfielders in the country than Jack Wilshere © Getty Images

The first of several players in this list to benefit from the ability to run really fast (ahem Theo Walcott), Walker once said in FourFourTwo magazine: "Bale gives me a good run for my money when it comes to acceleration and deceleration."

Another who tends to attack before he thinks about defending, Walker has undoubtedly matured in the more mundane side of the game this season. Bettering Verthonghen's record, he has contributed five assists in all competitions and - in the league - averages nearly a shot per game. If Spurs don't finish top-four, Manuel Neuer and Co will sleep easy.

Santi Cazorla

Creative, imaginative and full of talent in either boot, Cazorla was once given the less-than-groundbreaking nickname of 'Messi' or 'Maradona' by team-mate Jack Wilshere. All four assists in the last outing against Wigan certainly made the comparison slightly less laughable.

Cazorla has scored 12 and created 11 in the league this season, only disappearing for a period earlier in the season as Arsenal underwent their worst spell of form. When the Spaniard plays, generally so do the Gunners, and it would be a waste if his talent wasn't used on the biggest stage next season.

Mousa Dembele

Charged with replacing the graceful Luka Modric at the heart of Tottenham's midfield, Dembele probably understands more than most how David Moyes feels stepping into Sir Alex Ferguson's shoes. Modric was something of a genius, and to be fair to Dembele, he's giving it a decent crack at usurping him.

Seemingly able to glide past players at will, perhaps the main criticism to be levelled at Dembele is his end product. Two goals all season, and fewer assists than Kyle Walker hardly speaks glowingly of a midfield creator, but the Belgian is clearly extremely talented and certainly a reason for Spurs' excellent attack this year.

Jack Wilshere

When he emerged on the scene, it was said by some in the know that Wilshere may prove to be the best midfielder England have had since Paul Gascoigne. And as he continues to spend as much time in the treatment room as he does on the pitch, the comparison may end up proving true for the wrong reasons.

Wilshere the footballer is exceptional, capable of playing in any team in the world - including Barcelona at their best. His ability to provide a link between defence and attack testifies to his game intelligence, and if Arsenal can keep him fit for an entire campaign Wilshere could prove the key to a genuine title challenge next year. Simply must improve on a record of 24 games in all competitions though.

Aaron Lennon

Theo Walcott's statistics make for impressive reading this season © PA Photos

"He's good, but he's got no end product". How many times has that been said about Lennon? Well, this season he tops the assists chart at Spurs with six in the league, and he has also chipped in with four goals. Sometimes a player's importance is best captured by his absence, and Spurs are a far less dangerous side without him.

Arsenal, of course, know all about Lennon after he scythed through their defence for the opening goal at White Hart Lane, and his ability to wander off his flank has added an extra dimension to his game. Gareth Bale (rightly) gets all the plaudits, but if Tottenham are to become genuine title challengers Villas-Boas needs to find suitable cover for Lennon, who brings superb balance to the Tottenham attack.

Theo Walcott

Like Lennon, a man with no end product... apparently. Yet Walcott's statistics speak for themselves this season. In league competition alone he has netted 14 times and created 10. In all competitions, those numbers rise to 21 and 14 respectively. The England winger who once ran down blind alleys for fun, is now showing an awareness that may yet lead to him becoming Arsenal's central striker in years to come.

There are still areas to improve though, and Champions League performance is one such area. One goal in five appearances was hardly an impressive return this year, and there are times when Walcott still does not pick the right option. Nevertheless, at the age of 24 he is still at least two years from entering his peak, and his goals are becoming vital to the Gunners.

Jermain Defoe

If there is one thing Villas-Boas can take an awful lot of credit for since becoming Spurs manager, it is surely adapting the influence of Defoe. Once viewed as a fox-in-the-box who offered little outside of the 18-yard area, Defoe has made 27 league starts this season - the majority of which have seen him feature as a lone striker.

His goal tally is almost identical to last year, scoring 15 in all competitions to date, but his ability to bring others into play and also make an impact from the bench has been key for Spurs. England recognition perhaps best sums up Defoe's career revival, with seven international appearances compared to a solitary substitute role in 2011-12, and his eye for goal remains a weapon in Europe, where he netted four times in the current campaign.

Gareth Bale

What is there left to say about the season Bale is having? Multiple Player of the Year, linked to Real Madrid, Manchester United and Barcelona, and the top match-winner in the Premier League this season. Quite simply the Wales man is the pick of this bunch, the one man above all others who deserves to be playing Champions League football.

Should Spurs miss out, where does that leave him? Bale has netted 25 goals in all competitions this year, many of them decisive in turning a point into three. He has operated on the left, right and through the centre, and has added a devilish outside-of-the-boot cross to his arsenal. What's his major plan for the summer? Move abroad? Sign a new contract? No, according to Bale himself, he'll be working on his right foot.

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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Ben Blackmore is deputy editor of ESPN.co.uk