With 12 games still to play during this Premier League season and only four points separating themselves and fifth-placed Arsenal, there aren’t many fixtures remaining that Tottenham Hotspur can’t label ‘must-win’.
And following the tough Europa League last 16 second-leg-tie against Lyon this evening, Andre Villas-Boas’ side will have barely any time to get their breath back with a trip to West Ham United waiting in the wings next Monday.
But while that match will signify another crucial obstacle they most overcome should they wish to achieve Champions League qualification this term, it also marks something of a poignant reminder as to quite how much work they still have to do in order to get there.
When Spurs take to the field against the Hammers on Monday, it will represent exactly a year since they were hammered 5-2 by Arsenal at The Emirates. Of course, the journey of self-destruction that subsequently followed entailed a lot more than simply one bad day at the office.
Although that loss was very much the beginning of the end for Harry Redknapp’s side and in the blink of an eyelid, their 10 point lead over the Gunners was shredded to just the single point after three losses on the spin.
Now it’s hardly as if Spurs supporters need any reminding as to the eventual outcome of their 2011-12 season. And indeed, many would rightly argue that this year’s team strikes a remarkably different outlook from the one that crumbled under Redknapp last term. The soft underbelly appears to have been replaced by a gritty, steely resolve that’s been capable of grinding results out, rather than throwing them away.
But we are only going to gauge the true depth of this perceived change, with how Tottenham cope under the looming pressure that the fixture list is about to throw up. This time around, they don’t have a 10-point gap to throw away and should they come out of the upcoming matches against West Ham, Arsenal and then Liverpool away, with their fourth-placed cushion intact, then they still have one more defining run of games to overcome.
April may well represent the home straight in Spurs’ quest for Champions League qualification, but it brings with it a sequence of games that are really going to test their top-four credentials. Before finishing the month with a journey up to the DW Stadium to play Wigan, Villas-Boas’ men must first overcome Everton (H), Chelsea (A) and Manchester City (H). With two out of those three games coming at home, things could be worse for the Lilywhites, but it’s a trio of matches that should most certainly render any ‘mind-the-gap’ based nonsense redundant – however large their points gap may be heading into the month.
The missing variable in the equation here is of course the fate of their North London rivals and how Arsenal perform from here on in to the end of the season. Fans will be looking at Chelsea as a potential time bomb that could explode in their favour and supporters of both Everton and Liverpool may be raising a few eyebrows that their name hasn’t been thrown into the fourth-placed hat. But for Spurs, the target always has been and still remains, to finish above their North London rivals.
And it’s easy to forget that for as bad as the men from White Hart Lane were last season, Arsene Wenger’s men displayed the sort of form more akin to winning league titles, than scraping European qualification. Between February and April of last year, the Gunners won a staggering nine out of ten games, thanks in no small part to the heroics of one Robin van Persie.
Should Spurs beat both West Ham and Arsenal, with the gap between the two reaching a potential seven points, Wenger’s men are going to have to show a similar level of form over the final ten games. It would be naïve to write the Frenchman’s side off, but given their form over the course of the term so far, it feels difficult to envisage them recreating a purple patch on quite the scale of last season.
It’s always dangerous trying to preempt the fate of the fixture list and all Spurs can and should do, is worry about their own performances. During the course of the season’s run-in, Andre Villas-Boas’ side are going to lose football matches. But they simply cannot afford to put together a similar string of losses to the run that took the wheels off last season.
Focusing on the games against Everton, Chelsea and City is all very well, but Spurs could just as easily fall away to Stoke City as they could at the Liberty Stadium to Swansea at the end of March. But as cheesy as a buzzword momentum may be, it really is an imperative catalyst within the season’s run-in – both for better, as Arsenal found out last term and worse, as Tottenham supporters know only too well.
The early run of games in April are the hardest three fixtures Spurs are likely to come up against all season, bar the three that now lie imminently ahead. Although for however well they may do in their back-to-back London derbies, supporters would be foolish to anticipate a top four finish until the final-whistle has blown in their game against City on April 21st.
Even then, Spurs supporters will be well aware of their side’s capacity to self-destruct. But should they show they’ve got the ability to avoid putting together a run of defeats when the pressure’s on, not only will they have proven their new steely label to be true, they’ll be plying their trade in next season’s Champions League, too.