Maybe this was simply the final tease—the last dip before we scale the ultimate heights. Or maybe there’s no more to give and a game on the South Coast will tell more about our ultimate verdict this season than either of the tussles with Ajax.
The Dutch must be licking their lips taking this weekend off in Amsterdam. Here is a marvelous English team about to play its biggest game in at least a generation, and its top goal scorer is injured. Its second leading goal scorer is suspended. One of its brightest young stars is suffering still from a broken hand. Its best possession midfielder of the previous four seasons is in China; its surprisingly effective best holding midfielder of this season has been injured for two weeks and may or may not appear on Tuesday. Its young possession/distributing midfielder is injured. One of its two most dependable right backs is injured. The only substitute options today included a 34 year old striker who has no future in the club, and a formerly banished striker who hadn’t seen any action all season, and had barely registered the year before.
No surprise that the only two goals we’ve managed–in a second half season of paucity—in the past six hours were a deflection off Llorente’s arm/hip and one late brilliant strike by Eriksen to beat lowly Brighton. There were few ideas today and even fewer serious shots on goal. The forward quartet seemed at odds with each other—Lucas darting in and out in the middle, Dele and Eriksen looking to make through balls or go over the top, Son mainly content with his trademark gather on the right side and move to his left and shoot—only it is hardly new to any Premier League defender, and certainly the Hammers were more than prepared to prevent that fierce left-footed strike. Eric Dier—whatever he once was—simply does almost none of the things that Sissoko or Winks do, Dembele did, or even Wanyama lately can muster up. Foyth only at the death was able to overlap and create some real danger going down the right flank—he is a virgin in that role. Rose tried on the other side or in his newly-minted midfield role—but recognizing his many positive traits, serious goal chance creating is not one of them.
Sanchez and Alderweireld got their signals a bit crossed, and Antonio made a fine finish and opportunity squandered. This is what one portion of thin squad with another of poor luck gets you. And it isn’t all bad luck. Kane is now a serial ankle injurer—5 times in three seasons, with most of the serious kind. Sissoko played every game until he couldn’t. Son committed a regrettably stupid foul at the Etihad and falls victim to the rather bizarre Cup caution rules. The midfield seemed like a strength at season’s beginning—it has been operating at a serious deficit for months now with Dembele happily ensconced in China.
I do not believe we will bottle Top Four. If Chelsea can only manage a draw tomorrow, and if the Gooners poor away form continues at Leicester, we need only defeat Bournemouth and job done. Even if both London clubs do win, I think this side has enough left to win over both the Cherries and the Toffees if need be. Ajax is a different story. They’ve bested a veritable who’s who of great European clubs in this year’s competition—Bayern, Real Madrid and Juventus. They are like Spurs were a few years ago—very young but very ascendant. They believe in themselves. Spurs are placed—weirdly—into the veteran “we’ll show these whipper-snappers” role—we’ve almost been Chiellini-ized. But we do have a secret weapon—do you believe our three central defenders and Christian Eriksen want to lose at this level to the team they each graduated from? That defending may be critical on Tuesday—if at all possible, I think we have to win 1-0 or 2-0—deny the away goal that would make Ajax supremely confident returning to Amsterdam.
This is now unquestionably the weakest side—in terms of the league—that Spurs have offered in the past 4 seasons. Yet it is the one which might scale Everest. Can Poch bring this tattered group back up for two or three more supreme efforts? We’ll know soon enough.
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