Why this season is different (Spurs WILL qualify for the Champions League)

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I am well aware, as I type, that I’m setting myself up for a fall, but I think as a breed we Spurs fans are an inveterately optimistic bunch, so I trust you’ll humour me.

Not a year goes by when, following a heated pub debate with an Arsenal-supporting friend, I don’t get drawn into a rash wager that Spurs can break the top 4’s monopoly.  Usually by the following morning, I have haemorrhaged much of my reservoir of confidence and by the inevitable mid-season dip in form, any residual impudence has left completely and I’m bled white (metaphorically) as our team’s shirt.

However, this season, I believe will be different.  

For a team to finish in the upper reaches of the table requires the coalescence of a number of factors, some internal (quality of players, tactics, confidence) and other external contributors (injuries, failure of other teams, abstaining from lasagne).  This season, I am confident that we possess enough of these decisive qualities to finally fulfil the ambition that the club and its supporters have long held.

St Francis of Assisi, Margaret Thatcher and Harry Redknapp may perhaps seem unusual bedfellows, but all have famously recognised the importance of unity in the face of discord, and this is perhaps the most significant difference between the current team and Spurs sides of the past.  Harry’s collegial approach to management has produced a team spirit and optimism within the club that has been missing since the early halcyon days of Martin Jol’s tenure.  Players such as Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Tom Huddlestone, who had previously been in and out of the side, have benefited from the confidence instilled in them by their manager and are playing the best football of their careers.  Aaron Lennon, meanwhile, looks to have discovered an end product where before it was lacking, citing the guidance and advice of Harry, himself a winger in his playing days, as a major reason behind this.

Another sign of progress is that our first eleven has been relatively settled, the majority of changes being as a result of injury.  This has forged a degree of cohesion among the players, with useful pairings being formed all over the pitch. For example, Corluka and Lennon enjoy a good mutual understanding on the right, while the iron fist of Palacios is complimented by the silk glove of Huddlestone in the centre of midfield.  

The addition of Bassong to our defensive quarters means that we now have quality cover in the (likely) eventuality that one of Woody or Ledley is missing.  This is of undoubted benefit over the course of a lengthy 38 game (plus cup ties) season.  While I appreciate Dawson, for his brave, if rather agricultural, style, I fully expect to see the arrival of another centre-back in January, which will only increase the strength and depth of the squad.

Last year’s signing of Wilson Palacios from Wigan has been a revelation, giving some much-needed balance to our midfield.  His outing against Arsenal in the thrilling 4-4 draw last season was an object lesson in what we were previously lacking and how a top defensive midfielder should perform.  Despite his lack of height, he adds a huge physical presence in the centre, in a far more focused manner than Didier Zokora before him.  His tackling and spoiling should not detract from the fact that he is an excellent footballer.  Alongside him, Huddlestone, who has started every game, has benefited from consistency and his distribution and shooting prowess have been rewarded by Mr Capello with a call up to the senior England side.  

With the mercurial Lennon and masterful Modric, ably deputised by Kranjcar, our midfield looks more than a match for any Premier League side.

Confidence and a willing mentality are essential for any team wishing to challenge for honours, and though Sunday’s result was probably an aberration (a combination of calamitous defending and incisive attack), it did suggest that the team have acquired a ruthlessness hitherto missing.  The inability to kill off a game against lesser opposition has blighted our aspirations in the past, but this season the team seem steelier and more determined, the hunger the players showed against Wigan, even with a 5 goal winning margin, was encouraging. 

The initial disappointment of missing out on European football this season would certainly be salved by entry to the Champions League next year, and may well prove an unexpected blessing.  The risk of injuries and fatigue that accompany an Europa League campaign make it an alloyed pleasure.  In a congested and difficult Easter period, the players will probably be glad of the extra recovery time.  Also, the impact on domestic winning percentages of teams in European competition is marked.  Last season saw this statistic drop by over 15% for Chelsea.

In a similar vein, Harry Redknapp’s judicious use of squad players in our League Cup fixtures may well prove invaluable to our Champions League bid.  It serves a dual purpose of keeping our first-teamers, who, by and large have been rested, fresh, while offering incentive to more marginal players, giving them the opportunity to impress.  Though unlikely to oust Lennon any time soon, David Bentley’s Cup showings prove he is still a very capable understudy and could yet prove an asset, should our number 7 pick up an injury.

Which leads me finally to the impact of external factors.  This season we have already seen Chelsea lose to Wigan, Man Utd to Burnley, Arsenal to Sunderland and Liverpool to a beach-ball.  The current campaign has certainly produced plenty of upsets.  That we have lost 4 times in close succession but still occupy 4th position is testament to the inconsistency of our rivals, something on which we will hope to capitalise.  It is also worth noting that while losing 3 of our 4 encounters with top 4 opposition this term may not advertise our own top 4 credentials, it bears comparison with Chelsea, who last year won only once in these fixtures, losing 4 times and drawing the other.  The frailty of Liverpool’s squad in the absence of Fernando Torres and Steven Gerrard offers further hope of their capitulation.  Indeed it is Liverpool whose grasp on a Champions League spot appears the most tenuous, a grip we will, come May, be vying with the likes of Man City and Aston Villa, to break. 

On finishing my discussion, I am no less conscious that many will still disagree with me, and while the immortal and oft-repeated words of Bill Nick, about ‘aiming high’ may seem an apt response, I will close with the somewhat less rhapsodic paraphrasing of Harry Redknapp, ‘Why not us?’

By Robert Ainley

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