Sandwiched between London rivals Chelsea and Arsenal in a three horse race for Champions League qualification, Tottenham Hotspur look well placed to cement their position in the top four and reach next season’s premier club competition. But as Spurs fans would no doubt tell you, the club have been here before and managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The question is: Will it happen again?
Just two weeks ago, the thought of Tottenham not finishing in the top four would have been quickly dismissed. A 2-1 north London derby victory over Arsenal at White Hart Lane opened up a seven point gap to the Gunners and with Gareth Bale in scintillating form, there seemed to be no stopping Andre Villas-Boas’ side.
But consecutive league defeats to Liverpool at Anfield and then at home to Fulham (three losses in a row if you count the eventually fruitful 4-1 loss to Inter Milan in the Europa League) have left Spurs looking over their shoulder nervously. Arsenal are now just four points behind with a game in hand, and the fear among everybody connected with Tottenham is that they will once again be pipped to a Champions League place by their bitter rivals.
Because we have been here before. Just look at what happened last season: at this stage of the 2011/12 campaign Tottenham could hardly fail to qualify for the Champions League. Enjoying a ten point cushion over Arsenal in mid-February, Spurs were just seven points off leaders Manchester City and there was even talk of a title challenge at the Lane.
Yet Harry Redknapp’s side unravelled in woeful style, and it began at the place they would have least wanted it to. Blowing a 2-0 lead at the Emirates to lose 5-2, never to recover, Tottenham took just 16 points from their last 13 games to limp home in fourth place, allowing Arsene Wenger’s side to overtake them in third.
Of course, that would normally be enough, but Chelsea’s remarkable Champions League victory denied Spurs a place at Europe’s top table, costing Redknapp his job in the process. Memories of the 2010/11 season didn’t help the now QPR boss: his side had taken just 14 points from their last ten games that season, too, as they finished fifth behind, yes, Arsenal.
Nobody in north London will ever forget ‘Lasagne-gate’ on the last day of the 2005/06 season, either, when Martin Jol’s squad were struck down by a bout of food poisoning hours before the vital clash with West Ham. A win would have secured Tottenham fourth place, but a team shorn of many ill stars went down to a 2-1 defeat which, coupled with Arsenal’s 4-2 victory over Wigan Athletic in the last ever match at Highbury, meant the Gunners had once again taken advantage of a Tottenham collapse: Jol’s team had taken just ten points from their last seven games, allowing Wenger’s side to overtake them when it mattered most.
And is the same thing happening again? Quite possibly. Three defeats on the trot at this stage of the season is careless and looking at the fixture list, things don’t get any easier after the international break.
Trips to Swansea and Chelsea sandwich home games with Everton and Manchester City, with Arsenal’s assignments looking, on paper at least, a whole lot easier.
Tottenham’s continued involvement in the Europa League is a complication, too. AVB claims it is ‘science fiction’ that a successful run in the competition will hamper their Premier League form, and as a man who has won the tournament in the same season as a domestic league with Porto, he may well be right.
But the rigours of life in the top division in England far outweigh those of Portugal, and as midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson pointed out after 1-0 reverse to Fulham, Spurs’ extra time assignment against Inter Milan ‘could have been a factor’ in the loss and that there ‘wasn’t energy and movement… there was something missing from our game’. Villas-Boas will have to shuffle his pack expertly if he is to avoid a repeat.
Of course, Tottenham could finish in the top four and win the Europa League (they are 5/2 favourites) and in that case, the season would be a historic one. It is certainly plausible.
But with both Arsenal and Tottenham priced up at 4/5 to finish in the top four, even the bookies know how close this race is going to be. Tottenham will know they shouldn’t be letting the weakest Gunners team in recent memory beat them to a top four position – but history suggests they might just let them do it.