Tottenham didn’t play badly against Barcelona a few weeks ago, but that wasn’t really important: they lost and remained at the foot of their Champions League qualification group.
As they tool up to face PSV in midweek, there’s no escaping the bigger picture now: should Inter Milan draw at Wembley when they come to London, Tottenham will be out of the Champions League and, barring highly unlikely results elsewhere, Pochettino and his players would then have taken a giant step back in Europe. On Saturday, Lionel Messi left Barcelona’s win over Sevilla with a fractured arm, meaning he will now miss both games with Inter. The Italians’ route to the knockout stages is now significantly easier.
The regret is that it isn’t really Pochettino's fault. Injuries to Christian Eriksen, Moussa Dembele and Dele Alli have robbed the Argentine of three essential midfielders and the loss of Jan Vertonghen, to a serious hamstring injury, has denied him his best centre-half for the rest of the year. Not only does Vertonghen’s absence weaken Tottenham without the ball, it has compromised their ability to be efficient with it, too; his ability to carry and distribute possession into midfield is fundamental.
Cumulatively, those are players Pochettino just can’t be without. Tottenham may realistically have had little chance of winning the Champions League, they remain in the happy-to-take-part-and-thanks-for-cash phase, but this was nonetheless a good opportunity to rattle the cages of some of the elite opponent, perhaps qualify for the knockout stages, and boost club morale ahead of the move to the new stadium.
All of which, unfortunately, has been squandered. Injuries may always be part of football, but exposing a small squad to a burdensome workload – and a World Cup – was always likely to create this scenario. It’s not a coincidence that all of those players are currently suffering muscle complaints and that each one of them spent the summer in Russia.
In other words, this was a scenario which could have been seen coming and which, were Tottenham really serious about continuing their rate of advancement, they could have alleviated. As a result, 2018-19 already feels like a wasted opportunity – and, even after just two European fixtures, the most sensible course of action would probably be to de-prioritise the Champions League and focus all resources on the league.
How dispiriting that would be. All of last season’s effort vented away because, instead of strengthening in a way which would allow a sustained challenge across multiple fronts, the club chose to roll the dice once more on a squad which was already over-stretched. The fact remains, though, that the priority for next season is to take Champions League participation into the new stadium and, tedious though it may be to fixate on such things, maintain an important revenue stream.
Tottenham’s performance against West Ham on Saturday seemed to validate such an approach. The 1-0 win was as a success and Pochettino’s management of a threadbare squad has been laudable, but it still betrayed how stretched Spurs are. With a solely domestic focus, the top-four and a domestic cup remain realistic goals, but spreading their resources any further than that – to include continental competition – would likely take them beyond their elastic limit and jeopardise more achievable aims. The January window will likely come and go without any reinforcement and on current evidence, meaning that European competition looks like a gratuitous endeavour which everybody can do without.
It sounds unpalatable, but the dye is already cast. Even at full-strength, the chances of qualification now appear remote and so, logically, why commit any eggs at all to that basket?
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