Tuesday, March 17, 2009

No crap, Spurs could be heading for Europe

Tottenham's win at Aston Villa, combined with seventh-placed West Ham's failure to beat cellar dwellers West Brom on Monday night, has given Spurs fans a glimmer of hope that European football could return to White Hart Lane next season.

Manchester United winning the Carling Cup means seventh place in the Premiership will seal a spot in the revamped Europa League, next season's jazzed up Uefa Cup.

Spurs are now eleventh, just five points off European qualification with nine Premier League games remaining including clashes with fellow challengers West Ham and Everton.

There's been plenty of talk about Europe in north London over the past week.

Harry Redknapp, who said his buoyant side had demonstrated 'top-seven form' since his October arrival, has always maintained he fancies Arsenal to snare the final Champions League place but responded to the suggestion Tottenham's 2-1 win at Villa Park had done the club's bitter rivals a favour with a swipe.

"Some Tottenham fans said to me, 'I hope we don't win at Villa'," he chuckled after winning in the West Midlands. "I have never heard such crap in all my life."

The view that the Gunners will grab fourth place, however, was reinforced at an insipid Villa Park where the biggest cheer of the afternoon was reserved for the withdrawal of goal-shy Villa striker Gabby Agbonlahor.

As home fans were mocking one of their own, Spurs derided their opponent's Champions League credentials.

O'Neill had predicted Tottenham would become proper Premier League forces in the build-up to Sunday's game, but clearly didn't foresee the immediacy of his forecast.

Many pundits now reckon the only way for Villa is down after Jermaine Jenas and Darren Bent scored early in each half to send O'Neill's side spiralling from the top four for the first time this year.

Villa, winless in seven, face Liverpool at Anfield, then Manchester United at Old Trafford in their next two league games.

But the more worrying scenario is that their chance of breaking into the top four on a more permanent basis also appears to be disappearing.

Wherever they finish up, Spurs, who spent £15m bringing Robbie Keane back to the Lane during the transfer window, and moneybags Manchester City look set to finish higher up the ladder next year.

Indeed Villa, who paid Wigan £3.5m for Emile Heskey in January, might not get close to any kind of European place next season barring significant investment in the summer.

Their problems stem from attack. Heskey's partnership with Agbonlahor should be a match made in heaven, but the England pair too often drift into the same channels to the growing frustration of Ashley Young, Villa's pre-eminent threat on the left.

The contrast with Tottenham's front two is stark. Keane is a natural organiser and dictates the shape of Spurs' attacking play, allowing Bent to focus simply on scoring as proved by Tottenham's decisive second.

For all his silverware with Celtic, O'Neill's biggest managerial test might just come between now and mid-May.

Copyright © Marc Fox and Soccerphile.com

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