MARTIN SAMUEL: Will Spurs be left at the altar again?
There is an image that sums up the agony of the average Tottenham Hotspur supporter. It comes from the last day of the 2005-06 season and a match against West Ham United at Upton Park. In the background, small groups of visiting fans can be seen eschewing their own colours for the red and blue of Barcelona. Why was this; and what happened next? Well, for Tottenham, it was what might be termed the usual. The reason for the sudden infatuation with Catalonia was that Barcelona would shortly play Arsenal in the European Cup final in Paris and, in the minds of many Tottenham supporters, an Arsenal victory was all that stood between them and Champions League football the next season. Looking down: Teemu Tainio (left) and Robbie Keane sum up Tottenham dejection as they flank manager Martin Jol at the end of the Upton Park defeat in 2006 Victory at West Ham that day would have given Tottenham fourth place at Arsenal's expense - they were a point clear of their great rivals going into the match - and entry could then be denied only if Arsenal became European champions, claiming England's fourth qualification spot by that route instead. So Tottenham fans supported Barcelona, their own victory against a West Ham team with one eye on the FA Cup final against Liverpool seemingly assured. Final score: West Ham United 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1. Meanwhile, Arsenal defeated Wigan Athletic 4-2 to finish with 67 points, two ahead of Tottenham. They duly lost to Barcelona later that month, but by then the outcome was irrelevant to Champions League qualification. Tottenham loyalists no doubt still supported them but out of bitterness and schadenfreude, rather than any positive motivation. Even delight in the misfortune of others has spent more time flowing in the opposite direction across north London since, as Tottenham have slipped down the league table, from Champions League contenders to also-rans. It is not just that Tottenham invariably end up as the bridesmaid not the bride, more that they become the sad sack bridesmaid who spends most of the evening in floods of tears, or the one who breaks an ankle trying over-enthusiastically to catch the bouquet or comes out of the toilet with the back of her skirt tucked in her knickers. They have an almost exquisite talent for blowing the big chance and this season is no exception. Tottenham were by far the biggest losers of the weekend. No, scratch that. Tottenham have been by far the biggest losers this month. If Arsene Wenger at Arsenal traditionally hates November, Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, should have it in for December unless he can stimulate a revival against Manchester City tonight. Dumped: Darron Gibson scored twice to knock Spurs out of the Carling Cup So far, having been removed from the Carling Cup by Manchester United's second string, surrendered a two-goal lead and missed a last-minute penalty against Everton and lost at home to a Wolverhampton Wanderers side who had last won on their travels on August 18, Redknapp has the look of Ben, the movie producer who finds his star inexplicably waning in the film What Just Happened? 'In Hollywood, everyone can hear you scream,' was the tag line, and football is a bit like that, too. Redknapp has spent the last two weeks watching a team who looked to be hitting their stride at the perfect moment take a detour over a cliff instead, so no wonder he is being a tad Grinch-like. There will be no Christmas party for the players this season and not just because, late in his career, Redknapp has taken against alcohol as the bonding lubricant of choice for the modern footballer. After all, what is there to celebrate at White Hart Lane? Yes, the place is on the up when present status is compared to the league table from 12 months ago, but Redknapp is an ambitious manager and will still be thinking what might have been. It is a common pastime at Tottenham. Take that match against West Ham. It wasn't just that Tottenham lost, or even that some of their supporters had to go home on public transport humiliated by attire that as good as screamed their misplaced over-confidence, it was the prelude to the defeat that was so comically dire, with 10 players, plus manager Martin Jol and his assistant Chris Hughton, going down with suspected food poisoning after a stay at a London hotel. This added an element of farce when, in the aftermath of defeat, there was talk of the club suing the Marriott in West India Quay for negligence or the Premier League for refusing to call the game off. Environmental inspectors from the Health Protection Agency and Tower Hamlets council then ruled that the illness was a freak, quickly spreading, outbreak of gastro-enteritis, not foul play or poor kitchen hygiene. Cue jokes about Tottenham being as sick as parrots, which would have gone down about as well as that pre-match meal. More from Martin Samuel... 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Tottenham ended November putting nine past Wigan and forcing a credible draw away to Aston Villa and, with Liverpool out of form and Arsenal inconsistent, December should have seen a timely charge. The league programme was favourable and there was the added fillip of a Carling Cup quarter-final against a weakened Manchester United, offering another opportunity for success. That is where it began to go wrong. Tottenham went down tamely at Old Trafford on December 1 and Redknapp knew it. He played a near full-strength team against one that included Ritchie de Laet, Gabriel Obertan, Darron Gibson and Danny Welbeck and still lost. Maybe over-confidence was the problem again. It certainly looked that way in the next match at Everton, when Tottenham led 2-0 with 14 minutes to go, at which point Peter Crouch, put through by Niko Kranjcar, missed a sitter. He turned away, with a philosophical shake of the head and a whimsical smile that seemed to suggest this mistake was all part of life's rich tapestry, and within eight minutes Everton were level. Jermain Defoe then missed an injury-time penalty and two points went west. The next week Tottenham lost a banker at home to Wolves and, if the five frittered points were factored into Tottenham's total, the club would have gone into the midweek fixtures in third place, two points behind Manchester United, with serious momentum. After all, there is no reason why Tottenham should not be up there: they have a squad who are the equal of many rivals, and superior to some. Instead, they have cracked early, making it hard to be confident that Redknapp's team have the mettle for what could be a scramble for Champions League football involving seven or more clubs. And there is no more money for the manager in the transfer window without player sales. Collapse: Jermain Defoe misses his late penalty against Everton after the Toffees has battled back to cancel out Spurs' two-goal advantage This will not go down well with supporters but Daniel Levy, the chairman, deserves credit for keeping a hard line in a recession. Redknapp is an outstanding manager, but too often his employers hide behind his penchant for persuasion when financial problems follow his tenure. Terence Brown, at West Ham, became overstretched then wanted to moan about Redknapp after his departure, and now Redknapp is catching flak for the crisis at Portsmouth. This is bogus. Chairmen control the money; chairmen know what the club can afford. Levy sanctioned substantial early investment but now the compromise is self-sufficiency, with Redknapp free to spend what he can raise in the transfer market. It may not be the easiest way to qualify for the Champions League, but at least it avoids financial oblivion if the team fall short. This is a time in the season when teams are written in and out of the title race on a weekly basis but, even so, there is an element of make or break around Tottenham's match against Manchester City tonight. City have hit a patch of form - although the battling nature of Saturday's draw at Bolton Wanderers overshadowed the fact that a team with title ambitions would expect three points there - but are far from invincible. Carlos Tevez is finding the net at last but Emmanuel Adebayor has scored only twice in the league since his infamous appearance against Arsenal on September 12, and City have kept a single clean sheet in the league once since August. This is hardly a mark of invincibility and Tottenham need a win to galvanise the campaign. The return of the inventive Luka Modric, out since August, cannot come too soon. There is no reason why this should not be Tottenham's year, the one they have been waiting for since the Champions League welcomed a quartet of English teams. History suggests otherwise, however, and as usual, the enemy is within. San Siro holds few fears nowTraditional evaluation would make the big Italian clubs the ones to avoid in the Champions League draw on Friday. AC and Inter Milan both failed to win difficult groups and any of the three English qualifiers could therefore face a last 16 trip to the San Siro. Is that really so daunting these days, though? There are bad memories of Manchester United being taken apart by AC Milan at the semi-final stage in 2007 but, since then, in six knockout games, neither club have made a dent on English fortunes. Liverpool defeated Inter 3-0 on aggregate in 2008, in the same round that Arsenal beat AC Milan 2-0. Last season, in the second round, Manchester United won comfortably against Inter Milan, 2-0 again. Filippo Inzaghi's second goal against Liverpool in the 2007 Champions League final now stands as the last time either Milanese team scored against English opposition in nine hours of football and, while Inter deserve respect as leaders and champions of Serie A, there are stronger teams to avoid in the draw. Louis Van Gaal: Turning round Bayern Munich Bayern Munich, for instance, whose impressive 4-1 demolition of Juventus in Turin suggests Louis van Gaal is at last beginning to turn the club around. All three English teams are better than Juventus, though. The most dangerous Italian club remaining, as Liverpool discovered, are Fiorentina. Against Lyon last month, faced with the prospect of securing a second-round spot with a home victory or making a nerve-wracking journey to Anfield for a last game decider, they became jittery under the pressure of defending a 1-0 lead. Now, having exceeded expectations by reaching the knock-out stage, every match is a bonus, and the freedom of the win at Liverpool proved it. Whoever they meet in the last 16, Fiorentina will be playing with the weight off and, in those circumstances, they represent a challenge, make no mistake of that. Winning the group has been a big advantage this year: the English clubs have also avoided the best of Spain - Barcelona, Real Madrid and Sevilla - and Bordeaux, champions of France. The evidence of the group stage, with Real still to gel and even Barcelona inconsistent, suggests no truly outstanding team have emerged in Europe this season. The tournament is still open and, whatever the draw holds, all English clubs should make the last eight, at least. CONTACT MARTIN AT: firstname.lastname@example.org
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