After four years of agonising near-misses, a recent rule change by UEFA means it is now time for Tottenham to adopt a new attitude to the Europa League.
As the winner of this competition will go straight into next season’s Champions League, surely Tottenham must now make it their priority — starting with tonight’s group fixture against Besiktas at White Hart Lane.
At first it seems crazy. The idea of attaching less importance to the Premier League than the Europa League is anathema to most English clubs. They see the lack of revenue, the Thursday night fixtures and the long away trips and think: “What’s the point?”
But look at it a different way. Whether Tottenham make the League top priority or not, what difference will it make to their final position?
Sixth instead of seventh? Fifth instead of sixth? However Spurs tackle this season, can anyone really see them finishing in the top four?
In all probability Chelsea and Manchester City will contest the top two places. Despite injury worries, Arsenal look the best of the rest, especially when their key players return.
Both Manchester United and Liverpool have had dodgy starts but it is hard to imagine United, with such remarkable talent at their disposal, not clicking under Louis van Gaal. Even without Luis Suarez, Liverpool are unlikely to go from a title challenge to failing to finish in the top four. It is hard to see Spurs keeping pace with the strongest sides in the country. So the level of competition at home means Mauricio Pochettino can throw everything at the Europa League.
He has a five-year contract, and — even by chairman Daniel Levy’s standards — it would be incredible if he were to be ditched this season for failing to finish in the top four. It would take a Juande Ramos-like run of form — two points from the first eight games saw the Spaniard lose his job in 2008 — to tempt Levy to abandon Pochettino. So what does the manager have to lose?
Under Harry Redknapp, Andre Villas-Boas and Tim Sherwood, Spurs adopted varying approaches to the Europa League as they chased the top-four spot. Redknapp did little to disguise his distrust of it, but still couldn’t manage to get Spurs into the Champions League a second time after achieving that feat in his first full season.
Villas-Boas did his utmost to win it, trying to play his strongest XI in all competitions and eventually paying the price. Sherwood attempted to juggle both the Premier League and the Europa League, but he and his team ended up dropping them both.
Nobody is suggesting Spurs should ignore the Premier League. But if they have a Europa League game followed by a top-flight fixture three days later, they should make sure their key men are ready for the Thursday night.
The fans would be disgruntled if the top stars were occasionally left out of big league games. But they would soon forgive Pochettino if he managed to deliver the club’s first European trophy since 1984 — as well as a place in the biggest club competition of the lot.
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