By Ewan Roberts
When the third-placed team in the division loses, at home, to a mid-table side with just two away wins from 14 previous road trips, there is usually a ripple of shock and surprise. But not at White Hart Lane. Instead there was only a sense of weary inevitability and resignation when Fulham battled to a 1-0 victory over Tottenham on Sunday. Messing up is what Spurs do best.
The north London club have been here before, wounded and dejected with the finishing line almost visible on the horizon. Under former manager Harry Redknapp, Spurs twice fluffed their lines during the run-in, conspiring to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Between February 25 and April 21 last season, they picked up a mere six points from a possible 27, recording just one win in nine games.
Under new boss Andre Villas-Boas, the side looked to have put their post-February demons behind them after a solid victory over Arsenal in the north London derby. Momentum was with Spurs, as their Portuguese boss acknowledged at the time.
"The difference from last year is that we are on an upward spiral in terms of confidence and they are on a negative spiral in terms of results," said Villas-Boas, fresh from defeating the Gunners.
But that is no longer the case. Any Arsenal confidence that had been punctured by the strikes of Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon at the start of March has been repaired by a spirited victory over Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena and a professional performance against frequent bogey side Swansea City.
Arsene Wenger's men are now just four points behind their rivals with a game in hand and a far superior goal difference. From plotting a way to usurp Manchester City in second, Villas-Boas' side, who lost their grip on third place following Chelsea’s win over West Ham, are looking over their shoulder once more.
The 35-year-old manager now faces his biggest task since joining the club last summer: ensuring a repeat of last season does not happen. While Arsenal have found resilience and courage in adversity, and Chelsea have, at last, found some sort of form under Rafa Benitez, Spurs have recorded three back-to-back defeats and conceded eight goals in the process. And that's just in one week.
There were positives to take from last Sunday's defeat against Liverpool, but Villas-Boas hindered his side against Fulham with a curious, borderline bizarre, team selection that saw left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto line up on the wing. The Cameroonian has never been a great offensive weapon, totalling just 12 combined goals and assists in 149 league appearances, and was abject against the Cottagers.
Jan Vertonghen, exceptional in recent weeks at centre-back, was moved to full-back as a result, while Gylfi Sigurdsson, full of creative spark and endeavour cutting infield from the left flank, was peripheral when switched to the right. There was a disharmony about the side's shape, a lack of balance, and Spurs duly suffered.
It is imperative that Tottenham find a way to halt their slump, and Villas-Boas must not allow his team to wallow in pity or subscribe to any notion that the club are doomed to fail – something the Portuguese himself notes.
"We just have to make sure we are able to fight against it [Tottenham's notorious past failings]. It's been a difficult month for us, but if we are able to find our form, our confidence, our wins, then we can invert the cycle that happens normally with Spurs. We just have to try to work hard."
The problem for Tottenham, however, is that their ability to work hard has been tapered by their Europa League commitments. In trying to win the Europe's second-tier tournament, Villas-Boas risks hampering his side's chances domestically as a thin squad struggles to compete on multiple fronts.
Villas-Boas is adamant that it has not been an issue, that he has rotated his squad plentifully to avoid fatigue – "We had a couple of fresh legs on the pitch," he said in his post-match press conference – though it would seem he has a rather loose definition of the term 'rotation'.
The spine of the team, particularly Mousa Dembele, has been overworked, with the Belgian visibly tiring against former club Fulham. Seven of the 10 outfield players who started against Inter also started against the Cottagers, five of whom played the full 120 minutes at San Siro.
Lennon, risked against Inter in midweek, was not fit to be named in the matchday squad following his longer than planned cameo against the Nerazzurri. "He's on the brink of rupturing his muscles," revealed Villas-Boas, and the explosive winger was sorely missed against Fulham, another casualty of the Europa League.
Villas-Boas' admirable desire to lift the Europa League for a second time in his young career is stretching a small Tottenham squad to breaking point. With fixtures piling up and players' energy reserves depleted, Spurs have lost four of the last six league matches that have directly followed a Thursday night European clash.
As such, the manager may need to sacrifice Europa League glory in favour of Champions League qualification, even if it is a sentiment that is at odds with the mantra that flows through White Hart Lane ever since Danny Blanchflower uttered the immortal phrase, "The game is about glory".
But at what point does glory lose its gleam? Without the carrot of Champions League football to dangle in front of Gareth Bale, Tottenham will lose the Welshman, and other star players, regardless of whether or not a Europa League vase is nestling in the trophy cabinet. With a frightening set of fixtures on the way, Spurs may need to reassess their priorities: Europa League triumph or the top four? If they aim for both, they could end up with neither.
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