The benefits of finishing high in the league are obvious but Spurs still have two cup competitions to fight for and Erlend Nordmo wants us to win something.
“It’s magnificent to be in Europe, and this club – a club like Tottenham Hotspur – if we’re not in Europe… we’re nothing. We’re nothing.” The words belongs to none other than Bill Nicholson. Another era, but Spurs is still participating almost every year without managing to get through to the last rounds. The FA Cup used to be our domestic cup, where we always seemed to do well. However, 1991 was the last time we actually lifted the trophy.
We made a return to the Champions League this season. It was the third time we competed in the best European club competition, for only the second time in the modern era. The whole campaign ended with two disappointing defeats at Wembley and a return to the Europa League. In the FA Cup we have a tough away draw to look forward to. 2008 was the last time we won a trophy and the fans are getting hungry for a new one.
Spurs has played more than 180 games in Europe. These games have been shared between games in the Champions League or the earlier version of it, Europa League, UEFA Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. We won more than 100 games versus some bad, some very decent and some excellent teams. The first season we played in Europe we did it after winning the league in 1961. We met Gornik from Poland and lost 2-4 in the first leg, away. In the return leg we gave them a proper footballing lesson, beating them 8-1 in a game that still is being rated as one of the very best of the history of White Hart Lane. The special feeling of a European Night at the Lane was felt among the fans for the first time and many special nights followed in the years to come. The first European trophy was won in 1963 after we beat Atletico Madrid 5-1 in the Cup Winners Cup and captain Danny Blanchflower lifted the first of three major European Trophies in Spurs history. Later, we went on to win the UEFA Cup finals vs Wolverhampton and Anderlecht in 1972 and 1984. The famous penalty save from Tony Parks that won us the last of the two will never be forgotten among the fans that were lucky enough to watch it.
The lofty expectations of the Champions League
After last seasons 3rd place expectations were high. The last time we qualified we collected some stand out memories, from the qualifying games, the group phase and the knock out rounds as well. It all started in Switzerland against Young Boys. 3 goals conceded in the first 30 minutes – on an artificial pitch we couldn’t cope with. The last 150 minutes of that draw saw us score 6 goals and Spurs was flying into the Champions League. In the group games we had quite a few highlights from a team that made us very proud. We had the 4-1 win vs Twente, the 3-0 win vs Werder Bremen, that second half hattrick from Bale vs Inter, and not to forget the 3-1 win versus the reigning European Champions and of course – Taxi for Maicon. The eyes of Spurs get filled with stars and happy tears just by thinking about it! The away win vs AC Milan was another highlight of an European adventure no one could have predicted. A silly red card from Peter Crouch led to a heavy defeat to an excellent Real Madrid side in the last 8, but it had been so much fun. With such memories it’s not hard to be disappointed. This season was such an anticlimax. We filled Wembley, but it just wasn’t the Lane. We had some injury problems and couldn’t cope with the occasion. Losing to Leverkusen and Monaco were the biggest let downs of a season where we haven’t had many, leaving a little thought for the recent defeat in Liverpool too of course. At the end of the day we have more experience after the campaign, but the dreams in Europe are still not gone. This coming Thursday we are going to Belgium and I really think we should go for this one!
Poch faced criticism
Pochettino has had to face some criticism for his approach to cup games and there certainly is something in it. However, during his first season we reached the final of the League Cup. It was a step too soon for the young team that year, but the pain the team and the fans felt after the loss was still hard to bear. Since that day we haven’t really been close to getting to a new final. In 2014/15 we went out in the FA Cup vs Leicester, back then they were a team struggling to stay in the Premiership. In the Europa League we were unlucky to play Fiorentina just before the final vs Chelsea and that ruined our team selection. At least there was a reason why we couldn’t play a full-strength side in the second leg. Sadly, that game is remembered for that Soldado one-on-one miss with the goalkeeper. Sorry for bringing that up. So, what about last season then? The days where Poch was facing the toughest questioning from the fans were after the League Cup defeat in a North London Derby. 1-2 and both Gooner goals scored by Flamini. The state of that sentence when you look at it! Only days later we famously beat Manchester City 4-1 and it took away a lot of attention from the the days before – losing a NLD with a weakened team. Forgotten, but maybe not forgiven? I love Pochettino, but he made a bad mistake that day. In the FA Cup we were beaten by Crystal Palace in a non-performance at the Lane and only days later we were outplayed in Dortmund with Mason and Carrol in central midfield and Chadli up front. It was all very frustrating – to say the least. Speaking for my wife and myself, we had just managed to get past the pepper spraying antics of Dortmund stewards causing us to enter the stadium just in time for Dortmund’s first goal. It was a night to forget.
Champions League – still a cash machine?
Since the creation of the Champions League in the early nineties the gap between what you could earn inside and outside the competition has been vast. However, in recent years English clubs have been earning a lot more on the TV deals, making the Champions League prize money more of a bonus than a necessity for the major clubs. Still, the hunt for top 4 is greater than ever. These days, playing against the best teams are probably more important than hitting the Champions League jackpot, but it also give clubs an obvious reach to a broader audience, something the smaller Europa League fails to do. For Spurs, taking part in the Champions League means that we take part in a competition we at the moment have no real chance of winning. We can hope that this will change in the future, but at the moment it’s far off. In the Europa League there is a different story. This is very much a competition we are capable of winning. I’m not saying we shouldn’t try to get into the top 4 places, but will tell you that we now have great chance of winning a European trophy. It’s not given that we’ll finish in the top places if we were to concentrate solely on the league either. Of the teams remaining we have Lyon, Mönchengladbach, Fiorentina, Shaktar, Schalke, Villareal, AS Roma, Manchester United, Ajax and Atletic Bilbao. These are all very good teams, but none of them are unbeatable for Spurs. And before you tag the Europa League as a trophy not worthy of winning there are bigger clubs than us left in it, and I bet they won’t share the view. To make it possible, the first task is to get past KAA Gent. And it starts on Thursday!
Koninklijke Atletiek Associatie Gent
Gent are as we speak 8th in the Belgian top division. They lost on the weekend as well, 0-1 at home to KAS Eupen. A little bit of a shocker that one, as Eupen is fighting relegation and the result was one of the surprises of this round, especially considering Gent’s very strong home form this season. This season has been somewhat of a disappointment for Gent, at least when you compare it to the past two seasons. In 2014/15 they were the surprise winners in the Champions playoff, crowning them Belgian Champions for the very first time. They beat Club Brügge and Anderlecht with a very narrow margin. Last season they qualified for the latter stages of the Champions League, as the first Belgian team to do so. They have a lot of talented players on their books. We should keep an eye on Kalifa Coulibaly and Jeremy Perbet who have scored 14 and 10 goals this season. Their captain, Renato Neto, has had very good games for them and was voted Man of the Match in their last and deciding group phase games vs Konyaspor in the Europa League in December. There is also Moses Simon to be aware of, a Nigerian dribbler who can score goals and give our fullbacks a run for their money. They even got an ex-Spur in William Trost-Ekong who played in the Spurs Academy until 2013. Gent’s form is rather average at the moment, they have won 2 of the last 5, two draws and 1 defeat. In the group phase they collected 8 points. Two wins against Konyaspor, to draws versus Braga and two defeats against the strong Ukrainian outfit Shaktar, who are considered among the favourites for the Europa League. They showed that when they played the Belgians, beating them 5-0 and 5-3 in the process. Gent’s home form in the league is the 3rd best in Belgium, but away from home they have been very poor. They have just won once, with 6 draws and 6 defeats. We have a good chance to get past Gent, but we need to make sure we have a good result from the first leg.
We have 16 teams remaining in the FA Cup this season. It means that we are three wins away from a final. Amazingly, the last 8 Premier League teams are spread over 8 ties – a dream for a conspiracy there. Potentially we could get 4 quarter finals with pure Premier League ties. It remains to be seen, but there is a chance that we have learned from our Wembley experiences so far, we have certainly played there more than any other teams lately. As extra motivation there is still a slight chance that we will get that last FA Cup game at the Lane. One last day out there – it would be special. Last chance will be in the potential quarter-finals as the remainder of the competition will be played on the Wembley turf. Fulham are a very decent Championship team, but they have been inconsistent this season. Their highest level is rather impressive though and they are certainly good enough to beat Spurs on their day, especially if we choose to rest too many first-choice players. Even more than the Europa League, the FA Cup this season presents us with a very good chance of winning a trophy. Five of the six remaining Premier League top teams are still in it and they all have away games. Manchester City might have the toughest draw, going to Huddersfield who have been on fire this season and currently find themselves in 3rd place in the Championship. Wolverhampton and Blackburn will need to find their best level if they are going to knock Chelsea and Manchester United out of the cup, but you never know. The last one, is of course Sutton United hosting Arsenal. The biggest hope probably remains that the pitch will be ruined – as it’s not up to Premiership standard and that might make it hard for the tippy-tappy visitors. Sutton might cause the cup shock of the century. We wouldn’t mind that
The magic of the cups
The next weeks will decide whether we can keep the dream about winning a cup this season alive. If we were to concentrate on the league alone, it’s easy to see how we can get easily disappointed as soon as there is a stumble along the way. Not saying we can’t keep it going for a while, our form this season and last indicate we could, but the cups are still worthy of our time and ambitions. Winning a trophy would give a lift for the whole club. It matters less which trophy it is. For the fans it’s always massive to win something, the league cup in 2008 was nothing short of amazing for the club and the players. Cup games work differently than league games. It’s constant pressure and a one-off. Smaller clubs go for the jugular as they eye the lottery win. After winning a competition the players get experience for future matches and finals. It’s experience you need in top games, and that is certainly an area where Spurs is still lacking. We are building at Spurs, but if we want to be winners, winning a cup is not the worst way to go. And it’s fun too. Spurs are good enough to go all the way in the cups this season, but it takes a lot of guts and bravery to do so. The year doesn’t end in 1, but 2017 is the year of the cockerel.