Spurs face crunch time for Champions League hopes against City
Emmanuel Adebayor has not hit the target terribly often this season, but he was bang on when describing Sunday's meeting between Tottenham Hotspur and Manchester City.
"This will be the decisive game for us," he said.
Once again (think those 1-0s in the closing stages of the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons) Tottenham's efforts to finish in the top four seem to depend upon what happens against City. Lose, and Spurs (fifth place, 58 points) could fall further behind Chelsea (third, 61) and Arsenal (fourth, 60). Could even drop into sixth place, if Everton (56) wins at Sunderland. Win, and they stay on the heels of the other London clubs in the chase, their confidence refreshed.
Since Spurs beat Arsenal at White Hart Lane at the start of March, the Gunners have taken 13 points from an available 15. From the 12 available to Tottenham in that time (having had the trip to Stamford Bridge postponed because of Chelsea's FA Cup progress), just four have been taken. Yet it is not simply a matter of mathematics. Tottenham manager Andre Villas-Boas was quick to dismiss the importance of the seven-point advantage that his side gained with that win over its rival.
"Obviously it doesn't mean anything," Villas-Boas said immediately after the game, remembering the points gap that Spurs squandered the previous season and suggesting that the problem then was that "it felt that everything was too possible for Tottenham."
This weekend there is a different psychological battle (certainly nothing is too possible for Villas-Boas' side at the moment). Midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson said he and his teammates "want to put things right" after exiting the Europa League on penalties against Basel last week. Spurs need to break from the results of recent weeks and reassert their top-four credentials. Of Tottenham's six remaining opponents, City would be the biggest scalp, and one that is as tantalizingly vulnerable as ever.
Wigan Athletic refused the second fiddle at the Etihad on Wednesday evening, and though a combination of poor composure and goalie Joe Hart kept them from taking the lead, the way Roberto Martinez's men played prevented City from hitting their best.
"We played against a team that keep the ball and made it difficult for us," said the first-team coach, David Platt. "We didn't look as though we were going to create anything."
Go at the game the right way, and Spurs can secure a restorative result, the "massive win" that Lewis Holtby has been talking about. Adebayor's comments about the tensions in the City team -- "whenever things are not going their way, there will definitely be a fight or an argument on the pitch" -- have been overplayed, but there is little doubt that Tottenham needs to set the tone with a high-tempo, aggressive start. Get it wrong, though, and City's players do not have to cast their minds back far to remember scoring five at White Hart Lane. Little wonder that the players have already begun bargaining for the vocal backing of the crowd.
"Everything has to work -- the team, the fans, all connected together," Holtby said.
The big story this week, of course, has been the fitness of Gareth Bale. Has he managed to train? (He was answering questions from Spurs fans on Twitter when the rest of the players returned Tuesday.) Will he be fit to play? Will he play anyway? Tottenham's win percentage is no better with or without Bale, but the manner in which he has made a difference to games in the second half of the season has given his absence significant symbolic weight.
At the same time as Spurs want him back, they can be forgiven for wanting to demonstrate that they can manage without him -- and that is made all the harder by the concurrent injuries to Aaron Lennon, whose speed has been sorely missed, and Jermain Defoe.
As a related aside, the biggest absence for Tottenham is a player who has been missing all season, one who has not even signed a contract at the club yet. It is largely because of Tottenham's failure -- even refusal -- to sign a quality striker in the last two transfer windows that Bale has had to take on the responsibilities that he has done this season; without him their attacking play would too often die at the 18-yard line. Sigurdsson, Holtby, Clint Dempsey; supply isn't the issue.
With only Adebayor up front in recent weeks and Bale and Defoe injured, the Spurs team sheet looks like a railway network laid so that all lines lead off the edge of a cliff. Unless the plan was to convince Bale of his importance, or to ramp up his transfer value before the summer, this is a staggering failure of ownership.
A quick word on the race at the other end of the table: Stoke City's tumble from 10th to 16th in the space of a month has turned the spotlight on its manager, Tony Pulis. This week, former Stoke manager Lou Macari stepped in to defend the current Stoke manager, saying that expectations are only higher because of what Pulis has achieved.
"It has been a fantastic journey at Stoke under Tony Pulis, unbelievable," he said. "Now it seems as though fans expect Stoke to be pushing on and finishing in the top 10."
Perhaps there are some fans who expect that, and plenty more who hope for it, but the most likely culprit is the way that Stoke is playing. Pulis' side has never perfectly matched the much-used clogger stereotype, but in the past that was because Stoke at least had wingers to inject pace down the flanks and deliver reliably good crosses.
That has vanished with Matthew Etherington and Jermaine Pennant -- in the last handful of Stoke matches it has been the opposing fullbacks who have dominated the wide areas. Now the stereotype is a bad fit because the team's performances are simply too dismal even to earn the epithet of dastardly clogging. That, surely, is what bothers fans.