Tottenham Hotspur’s love affair with the Champions League has largely revolved around qualification. Their magical performances on the back of Gareth Bale in 2010/11 are a distant memory now, the club has grown in stature since then and are about to head into two of the biggest European games in their recent history.
As the only remaining unbeaten Premier League team, Mauricio Pochettino has taken his side into 2016/17 as strong as they were for much of 2015/16. In the Champions League it has been a mixed bag in their opening two displays. A first game defeat to Monaco was a result of a Spurs team caught a little off-guard, while a professional performance allowed them to sneak past CSKA Moscow 1-0 in game two, with Heung-Min Son once again scoring the important goal.
Next in a tightly competitive Group E is a double-header against Bayer Leverkusen. When the group was drawn these were the two teams expected to be qualifying from the group, but with only one win between them so far, that is looking unlikely. The two games, the first of which is in western Germany, are enormous for both teams’ chances of progression. Two defeats and Spurs will be staring down the barrel, two victories and they’re as good as through. Even one win against the talented German outfit will give Pochettino’s side a very strong chance of qualification.
Should they fail to win either of the games – which are the two biggest of their season to date – the Europa League could beckon for the Lilywhites once again. And the implications for the season as a whole would be severe. All the years of falling short of the top four were ended last season and two poor results against Leverkusen could see them rejected from the promised land before the real business of knockout football.
If the worst were to happen for Tottenham, returning to the ignominy of returning to Thursday nights would harm everyone associated with the club. It would be the first suggestion that the astonishing improvements under Pochettino’s stewardship are not as permanent as the early runnings of this Premier League season suggest, how would a squad excited for a season of Champions League football deal with banishment from the main stage so prematurely? Having been drawn into a favourable, yet competitive, group reaching the last 16, probably as group winners, was the minimum expectation for a squad with depth and quality throughout.
A dismal performance against Monaco has left Spurs in a perilous position. Leverkusen, despite an indifferent start to their domestic season, possess the quality and flair to inflict a brace of defeats on Spurs. Defeat in Germany this week will place the sort of pressure on Tottenham in the return game that they have traditionally struggled to cope with. While progressing into the knockout rounds may stretch the squad, ending up with the Champions League’s ugly sibling will create an even greater sense of expectation domestically.
We are not even in November yet, but Tottenham’s pair of results against Bayer Leverkusen could already prove pivotal to the entirety of their currently promising 2016/17 campaign.