TOTTENHAM’S hugely enjoyable flirtation with the big time, which began a year ago with a 1-0 victory at Eastlands to qualify for the Champions League for the first time, is in danger of ending at exactly the same venue tomorrow.
There is no doubt that Harry Redknapp’s side took full advantage of their European adventure, enthralling fans across the continent with a thrilling, attacking style of football that saw them exceed all expectations by beating Inter and AC Milan on the way to the quarter-finals.
But with the adventure over it is becoming increasingly evident that an opportunity has been missed in the Premier League, where Spurs are now fighting to even finish fifth and facing a do-or-die match against Manchester City tomorrow.
Tottenham fans of an optimistic nature may not be too concerned; after all, their club enhanced its reputation across Europe this season, challenged the traditional Big Four and with Harry Redknapp in the dug-out and Player of the Year Gareth Bale on the pitch everything looks rosy.
But the challenge that lies ahead for Spurs if they want to build on their rapid progress is immense.
Consider the competition they face next season when City, already looking certainties to earn a top-four spot, are likely to be stronger still and Liverpool, the Premier League’s sleeping giants, are expected to emerge as serious contenders under new ownership and new management.
With Roman Abramovich suddenly re-invigorated at Chelsea and willing to add to the £85m he spent in January — and even Arsenal likely to open their dusty chequebook — the transfer market will be a feisty arena and the battle for the top four will be tougher than ever,
Consider the nightmare scenario — one which Arsenal supporters have no doubt already contemplated with relish.
It begins with defeat for Spurs at Eastlands tomorrow, the ground where Peter Crouch scored the winner on May 5, 2010 to begin Tottenham’s new adventure, and continues with a sixth-place finish in the Premier League to miss out on not only the Champions League but also the Europa League.
Next year Harry Redknapp succumbs to a call from the Football Association to take control of the England team or worse still faces serious consequences from a court case currently hanging over him; then he is followed out of the door by Gareth Bale to Milan or Madrid and Luka Modric to Manchester United (swapped for Dimitar Berbatov plus cash if current rumours are to be believed).
With no European football to offer big-name signings Tottenham’s problems in the transfer market are compounded by cash-rich Liverpool, United, Chelsea and City hoovering up the talent before Daniel Levy can even get through the door at clubs all over Europe and South America.
And their hopes of a new stadium are dashed by the dismissal of an appeal over the Olympic Stadium and a realisation that the rebuilding of White Hart Lane has become too expensive and too complicated for a club no longer enjoying the riches of the Champions League honey pot.
For Tottenham supporters who have not yet slashed their wrists, it is of course a doom and gloom glass-half-empty prediction that fails to tell the whole story of a club that has grown steadily in recent seasons and looks likely to challenge at the top for the foreseeable future; but it is, nevertheless, a concern.
For all the excitement generated by this season’s Champions League campaign someone does seem to have forgotten at some point that the Premier League is where it’s really at.
When Tottenham travelled to Blackpool on February 22, just days after winning in Milan, they had an opportunity, had they won, to go third in the table with games against Wolves, West Ham, Wigan, Stoke, Arsenal (at home) and West Brom to follow — almost all winnable fixtures.
In fact they lost 3-1 at Blackpool and took just eight points from a possible 21 in those seven key matches; a return that has left their European hopes all but over barring a big victory in Manchester tomorrow and a City collapse.
In contrast, Roberto Mancini’s side has grown in stature at the crucial stage in the season, garnering 13 points in the same period and making up for a puzzling 3-0 defeat at Anfield by beating derby rivals United in the FA Cup semi-final, a result that has sent confidence levels at Eastlands to a new high and sees them travel to Wembley for the Final against Stoke on Saturday.
City have their own problems in terms of player-retention because who knows where Carlos Tevez will end up next season but even a draw against Tottenham should be enough to ensure their pre-season target of reaching the Champions League is achieved with some comfort.
Can Tottenham say the same? Or will their remarkable campaign this year be nothing more than a memorable day-trip while those around them head off on holiday for real?
With so much attacking talent you can never rule Spurs out, as City found to their cost last year. But you fear Redknapp’s side will rue that seven-match spell when the excitement of Europe blinded them to the real challenge back home.
It could prove a very costly lapse indeed.
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