There is tension in the air at White Hart Lane as Tottenham Hotspur find themselves looking over their shoulder in the race for Champions League football while also juggling an FA Cup run and a battle to keep their manager. A defining two-month stretch lies ahead – both for the club and for boss Harry Redknapp.
Redknapp’s England aspirations are no secret. He remains the frontrunner for the job vacated by Fabio Capello last month and has made his interest known, though the FA appears adamant that a decision will not be made until the final weeks of the Premier League season.
But, with Tottenham suddenly in a fight for a top four finish, Redknapp cannot afford to look too far ahead. His team sits third, just a point ahead of Arsenal and four points in front of Chelsea.
Supporters will remember only too clearly how a top four finish slipped from their team’s grasp back in 2006 when a loss to West Ham on the final day of the season, coupled with an Arsenal victory, led to major heartache. A repeat of that drama is the nightmare scenario for everyone connected with the club.
A month is a long time in the football world. Not so long ago, Tottenham defender William Gallas was urging his team-mates to set their sights firmly on the title, but three straight defeats – including losses to Arsenal and Manchester United – have knocked the North Londoners’ confidence. Whether it derails the rest of their season remains to be seen. Tottenham’s run-in is favourable, with Chelsea the team’s only opponents from the top seven, but the likes of QPR and Blackburn, both fighting relegation, will be no pushovers either. Plus, no team is currently on a hotter run of form than Swansea, who travel to North London on 1st April.
All season, Redknapp has gone to great lengths to take pressure off his players, dodging questions about the team’s title chances and instead insisting that Champions League qualification is the real goal. Now, he has gone a step further.
"Finishing top four is not a must," he said. "If we don’t make it, it’s just one of those things. We’ll have given it our best shot. We don’t have a divine right to be in the top four. If we finish in the top four — and I think we will — we’ve punched above our weight. We haven’t finished above Arsenal or Chelsea for a long time and it looked like it would be tough to finish above Liverpool at the start of the season."
Despite Redknapp’s attempts to downplay the significance of the final eight weeks of the campaign, the stakes are high. There is a fear that Tottenham risk losing several key players if they fall short of a top four finish. Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, to name just two, are high on the wishlists of clubs across Europe. Europa League football might also be a deal breaker for summer transfer targets.
The speculation over Redknapp’s future has not helped matters – and the uncertainty will continue until the end of the season, assuming the FA sticks to its plans to wait before making the appointment.
Situations such as these bring about a sense of unease that trickles down to the players. While there were plenty of positives to take from the Manchester United game as well as the first half at Arsenal, there are obvious concerns over losing a manager that hauled the club from the bottom of the table to the latter stages of the Champions League.
What happens next? That is the big question at White Hart Lane.
Jose Mourinho is an obvious target for the Spurs hierarchy if Redknapp leaves for the England job, but the Real Madrid boss is likely to have a sea of offers to consider should he leave the Bernabeu at the end of the season. Plans B and C are no doubt in the works.
Amidst all the off-pitch drama, Redknapp and his players must throw all their focus into clinching the top four spot that their performances all season have deserved. With Arsenal and Chelsea lurking, Spurs will need every ounce of quality to ensure there is no painful repeat of 2006. As for England and next season, that will all have to wait.