For better or for worse, Tottenham are on the brink of exiting the Europa League, the Champions League’s ugly sister, at the group stages - Last night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands of PAOK Salonika all but ended their hopes of making it to the next stage of the competition.
For all the title talk and Champions League chatter that has echoed around the corridors of White Hart Lane this past week, Spurs were delivered a humbling made ultimately worse by their thinly veiled desire to win and win well.
A run of 10 games beaten in the Premier League left most observers in attendance believing the Greek side would offer little resistance, although it was an assessment made well before perhaps two of the worst examples of defending likely to be seen at White Hart Lane this season and probably the next ten.
Not to worry. Four times, we were told, Spurs had come back in Europe from two goals down to claim improbable victory. Expectations at their nadir, The White Hart Lane Faithful braced themselves for a charge that ultimately never came, for a show of strength that never fully developed beyond the huff and puff of the vague hope that eventually the pressure would tell.
Tottenham’s vastly superior possession of little under 70% was converted into just six shots on target. Wave after wave of white shirted forays ended in nothing but pot-shots. This was the cocksure Spurs of recent weeks, the slick quick movement of the ball was there but this time round they were short fo ideas when it came to the final act, putting the ball in the back of the net.
Of course the game hinged on two pivotal decisions, with each pip of referee’s Bas Nijhuis whistle drastically altering the course of a game that most had absent-mindedly handed to Spurs before a ball had been kicked in anger without a thought to the 1-1 draw in Greece that the home side more than deserved.
Kostas Stafylidis’ red card and the subsequent penalty in the first half that had hauled Spurs back into the game was somewhat harsh, although by the letter of the law necessary.
Chaos reigned in the second half when Jermain Defoe hopped up having mauled a PAOK defender on the line to slot the equalizer that couldn’t be offside because his handiwork was left crumpled just inside the right-hand post.Disorder ensued, with confused glances exchanged between referee and linesman, and linesman and 5th official. The goal was disallowed, much to the ire and confusion of those inside White Hart Lane.
Plenty of action followed, but of such little consequence was it that even with five minutes of injury time Spurs were unable to pick the lock and claim at least a point.
Despite Redknapp’s disparaging treatment of the competition so far, he wanted to win this one. His eyes lit up in his pre-match interview when discussing the prospect of having a perfect platform to blood young players, to give them a competitive game with something to aim for. Earlier in the week he had expressed his fears that some of his fringe players would want to leave because of a lack of first team action, perhaps this competition was his bargaining tool.
His desire to qualify was clear for all to see as well. Luka Modric, Jermain Defoe and Aaron Lennon all started with the debilitating Christmas fixture list looming large on the horizon, his increasingly agitated disposition adding meat to the bones of his claims beforehand that football matches get increasingly more stressful as they progress.
Three points behind Rubin Kazan, Spurs must now hope they can negotiate a six goal swing and hope that PAOK can provide a helping hand in the final round of fixtures when they go up against the Russians. Not impossible, but certainly a tall order.
Spurs fans remain hopeful; in an exclusive poll conducted by Give me football, 67% believed they could pull of an unlikely turnaround, 26% believe the defeat on Thursday was one too far in a competition they were amongst the favourites for.
9% shrugged their shoulders at the thought of Spurs progressing in a manner similar to Redknapp as he saw his side have almost total exclusive control of the ball in the second half without breaking down the Greek wall in front of them.
Both optimism and pessimism are qualities football fans are laden with. Realism becomes blurred when it comes to matters of the heart.
The task may not be impossible, just merely improbable. Rubin Kazan demonstrated across two legs they are perhaps one of the finest passing sides in the competition, on par with Spurs and unlucky to come out of two games against the men in white with a record of won one lost one.
The six goal deficit that must be overturned shouldn’t be much of a hinderence; their opponents, pointless (in both meanings of the word) Shamrock Rovers have shipped 15 goals in five games, even if they did give Spurs the shock of their lives by going 1-0 up at White Hart Lane.
But there is little chance of PAOK overturning Rubin, even if they do have the home advantage. The 2-2 draw between the sides represents perhaps the Greek’s side best possible outcome; although they proved themselves to be a street-smart side, Rubin’s class will likely tell and dump Spurs out.
Regardless of the permutations and the what-ifs, Spurs now lay on life support in the Europa League, the competition few clubs want to be in. For Spurs, it may be a case of never knowing what you’ve got until its gone.