Do Spurs actually want to beat Liverpool to Europa League spot?
EVER since the visit to Manchester City was rescheduled for the middle of May, Spurs have been heading for a climactic winner-takes-all showdown in the north – a one-off match that will decide their European destiny.
In that sense, nothing has changed. However, the venue for that pivotal clash has now moved from Eastlands to Anfield – and the stakes have also been lowered.
Instead of engaging Man City in a 90-minute battle for the top four, like last year, Tottenham will instead go to Liverpool and fight for a Europa League place.
The question is, do Harry Redknapp’s Lilywhites actually want to win this battle?
The manager certainly seems to be unsure. Last Friday, before Spurs’ trip to Chelsea, Redknapp said: “The Europa League takes an even bigger toll [on league form] than the Champions League. That’s the problem.
“Playing on Thursdays and Sundays every week, it’s not ideal. It’s one of those competitions that teams get into and then they try to get out of. You look at the English teams, and they all seem to have played reserve teams. It’s a million miles away from the Champions League unfortunately.”
Asked if Spurs would be better off finishing sixth and missed out on Europe entirely, he paused and carefully replied: “No, my chairman would want fifth…”
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After the defeat at Stamford Bridge, the issue of the Europa League became even more relevant – and Redknapp’s response to that same question was slightly different.
“It’s not ideal but we’ve got to try to do that [finish fifth],” he said, with an important caveat: “I felt last year that the reason we finished in the Champions League position was because we weren’t involved in Europe. It’s a big advantage.”
The way things are looking at the moment, Spurs may well have that advantage again next season – whether they want it or not.
Given that the Europa League is something of a poisoned chalice, it will be interesting to see if a Tottenham side who have patently run out of steam rise to meet Liverpool’s challenge in the final games of the season.
Somehow it seems more likely that they will continue to fade, conveniently but reasonably – and allow Liverpool to pick up all of those extra games next season, along with the glamorous trips to the likes of Hajduk Split, Sparta Prague and Standard Liege.
And, even if the Lilywhites set their hearts on a fifth-placed finish, there are still no guarantees that they will achieve that.
With Spurs’ current form, the trip to Eastlands next week looks daunting, and Liverpool have won their last three home games by an aggregate score of 11-0. While Tottenham have tired, the Merseysiders have taken 16 points from a possible 21.
Unless Dalglish’s side take a mysterious turn for the worse and lose all of their momentum at the crucial moment, Spurs could easily find themselves missing out on Europa League qualification this season.
Privately, that may please Redknapp and his players – but should it?
Granted, the endless group games would stretch a Spurs squad which is due to be ‘streamlined’ this summer, and there are a lot of uninteresting games to play before you even get to the two-legged knock-outs. The road to the final is hardly paved with gold.
However, Tottenham are now running the risk of putting their league position above all else, forsaking the trophy trail for a chance to simply play in the Champions League again.
It is a dangerous road to go down, because this season’s adventure has already come at the expense of a challenge in the Carling Cup, when Redknapp played a reserve team against Arsenal, and the FA Cup, when they fell at the second hurdle at Fulham.
Is the Europa League now too small for Spurs too? Would it really be better to miss out because it will hinder the Lilywhites’ chances of finishing fourth in the league?
Surely, having reached the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and received a wealth of experience at the highest level, Tottenham would now have a better chance of winning the Europa League, their first continental success since 1984.
That Uefa Cup victory is still a triumphant moment in Spurs’ history - just ask the current goalkeeping coach Tony Parks, the hero in the final. Should the current crop repeat that feat, it would be a real cause for celebration.
Redknapp may be scornful of the ‘reserve teams’ that Tottenham would face, but surely that would just smooth his side’s progress and give them a better chance of glory. After all, Fulham reached the final last year.
Look at the winners and there are some respected names on that list: Liverpool, FC Porto, Valencia, Sevilla, Shakhtar Donetsk and Atletico Madrid have all won the Uefa Cup or the rebranded Europa League since 2000.
These sides are regularly involved in the Champions League, but they still took the trouble to win Europe’s second competition. Why, then, is it beneath Tottenham?
While this season’s adventure has been fantastic, there may be a silver lining to Spurs’ failure to make the top four again – the chance to refocus on silverware.
Tottenham are not going to win the Premier League and, if and when they reach the Champions League again, they will probably not win that either. So what will they win? How will Spurs’ players feel if they finish their careers without a medal because the priority was always to finish fourth in the league?
The Europa League is a realistic objective now – but, as the old adage goes, you have to be in it to win it.