Is missing out an acceptable price to pay for Tottenham?

Andre Villas-Boas

We are now firmly into the business end of the season. With the final international break out of the way, it’s non-stop¬†Premier League football for two months, supplemented with the FA Cup, Europa League and Champions League along the way – although unfortunately British interest in the latter will be exclusively as a spectator.

It is now at that point of the year where every club has some crucial decisions to make. Perhaps in a more conventional season, prioritising between tournaments would be much harder, but as it stands, the title race is already over, and every English team has been eliminated from the Champions League, thus giving Manchester City and Chelsea free reign to make the most out of the auxiliary competitions, and similarly Arsenal are now in a position to solely focus on finishing in fourth spot come the final day of the season.

Yet, at White Hart Lane, Andre Villas-Boas has a rather puzzling conundrum about how best to end his inaugural campaign. The Portuguese coach has the chance to match Harry Redknapp’s greatest achievement of pushing Tottenham into the Champions League, or he could pursue his final remaining opportunity to get his hands on some silverware in the Europa League.

In an ideal world, one would say take both. But there is the fear that the pressures of fighting on both fronts, psychologically and physically, may be a challenge too far for a relatively young and inexperienced team and management staff that have only recently been accepted in England as real contenders.

Fulham’s famous continental run that saw them reach the Europa League final came at the price of their domestic form, uncharacteristically dropping to 12th in the table during the 2009/2010 season, having ended up in 7th the year previous and 8th the year after. The situation is rather different for Tottenham, as they are blessed with arguably the best strength in depth in the Premier League, with the exception of their striker department.

Yet there is no denying that the extra potential 15 games Spurs will have played should they reach the final will have an impact on the club, especially considering AVB has not used the continental competition to field rather conservative or rotated teams. Indeed, Gareth Bale has made seven appearances already in the Europa League, bringing his collective total of matches for the season up to 40 when including international duty, and he will certainly be playing a key role in the final rounds of the tournament.

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Similarly, Jan Vertonghen has already made 10 Europa League appearances, as has Aaron Lennon, while midfield dynamo Moussa Dembele has turned out eight times, despite all being rather integral cogs in the Tottenham machine that one would rather protect than expose. The phrase “you don’t get tired when you’re winning” has been bandied about a lot this season, mainly by Ray Wilkins, and indeed Spurs have spent much of the season in winning form, but should a few results not go their way, the Lilywhites stars may find their legs getting very tired very quickly, and the club could undergo their customary burnout period as they often do at the end of the season.

So, would lifting some silverwear, in the form of the Europa League winner’s trophy, be an acceptable price to pay for missing out on a Champions League slot? Or, with this being Spurs best chance to date of finishing as high as 3rd in the Premier League table, the position they are currently in, albeit with Chelsea and Arsenal having a game in hand, would letting the promised land of club football slip by yet again be an abomination for the fans?

Looking at Tottenham’s final run-in of fixtures, on paper there’s no reason why they can’t secure Champions League qualification with seven games to go. Although Everton’s visit to White Hart Lane on Sunday could prove to be a deciding match come the end of the season and their fixture against Manchester City could prove to be difficult, you’d expect Spurs to comfortably record results against Wigan, Southampton, Stoke and Sunderland – then again, match-ups against relegation candidates are always unpredictable at this point in the year.

It all depends on what impetus Andre Villas-Boas puts on winning the Europa League. He’s been incredibly outspoken about the tournament in which the Portuguese coach made his name with Porto, and having already made it into the quarter finals, being given a relatively simple tie against Basel, it is far too late to rank the competition a second priority.

With the exception of their League Cup final win in 2008, the Spurs trophy cabinet has been incredibly bare over the past twenty years, with their previous accolade being another League Cup back in 1999. Lifting the Europa League trophy would certainly give some physical embodiment to Andre Villas-Boas’ successes this season, and furthermore, I believe it would change hostile opinions in England about the Europa League being a second tier tournament. Rather than blemishing Tottenham’s achievements, I think it would boost the reputation of both Spurs and the Europa League domestically, and make a stronger case with UEFA for giving the winners of the tournament a group spot in the Champions League the following year.

However, in a year where power and dominance has shifted in North London, making a success of the Europa League would be very quickly tainted should Arsenal pip Spurs to the post yet again and finish in the final Champions League position. While Tottenham fans can claim having lifted two trophies in the last eight years since the Gunners last won any silverware, maintaining Arsenal’s impressive feat of being ever-present in the Champions League would be a valuable counter argument for any debate over bragging rights between the rival clubs.

Furthermore, in my opinion, this is the first season where the Lilywhites can rightly claim to possess a first team and squad that is better than Arsenal’s. In Gareth Bale they have an undeniable star player, which is still desperately desired but found absent over the past five years at the Emirates, and similarly, Tottenham’s summer recruits – Hugo Lloris, Moussa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, have sufficiently raised the quality of the starting XI.

Perhaps the desire to make it into the Champions League wouldn’t be so strong if Arsenal’s position in the table was not so close to Spurs’, with only a point currently separating the two sides of North London.¬† Winning the Europa League in the first season of what is in many ways a new era for Tottenham would be seen as a noteworthy achievement, even if finishing up in the top four had to be put on hold for another year.

But with the current situation in the domestic table, letting the opportunity to embarrass their local rivals and qualify for the Champions League slip by yet again, will almost certainly make success in the Europa League seem trivial from the perspective of the supporters, even if it is a valuable piece accolade in the eyes of Andre Villas-Boas.

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