Romilly Evans assesses a Spurs side who have struggled to deliver under pressure at this time of the year in recent seasons and wonders if it will happen again
"You’d have to rifle through some dusty scoring annals to uncover exactly when Adebayor or Defoe last bagged a league goal"
A 2-1 victory at White Hart Lane in early March was meant to finally get Arsenal off Tottenham's back for the season. And, more specifically, secure Spurs safe passage into next year's Champions League.
However, rather than kick on after that victory, Tottenham have slumped. And it took them until Saturday to cushion a fall which has become alarmingly familiar for fans at this pivotal stage of the Premier League campaign.
Still, Saturday's 2-1 win away to Swansea provided the fillip André Villas-Boas was after. The Spurs manager had said before the game that his side needed to win six of their last eight games to be sure of keeping elite European company next term. One down, five to go. But with Arsenal rallying and Everton stubbornly refusing to fade from Top Four contention, this battle should go down to the wire. And when the threads start to fray, Spurs supporters know that theirs invariably snaps first.
Happily for Tottenham, Chelsea (the other side at the forefront of CL qualification) suffered a shock loss to lowly Southampton at the weekend, allowing Spurs to vault back into third place in the league.
At the business end of the season, of course, bare results count for more than the manner in which they are achieved. However, despite taking an early two-goal lead against a Swans outfit counting down the days to their summer holidays, Spurs struggled to assert their dominance. Indeed, they looked decidedly jittery once Swansea had got back into it and were clinging on for dear life by the final whistle.
Once again, that Gareth Bale guy was the game-changer, coupling an able assist to another cracking goal (his seventh from outside the area this year - and all of them have been travelling). Time and time again, the Welshman has struck up his one-man band and put on a performance when his teammates were out of tune. Saturday was no exception. He even threw in an eleventh hour block to prevent a late equaliser. As Swans boss, Michael Laudrup, concisely put it: "one player made the difference."
Villas-Boas was understandably more reluctant to single anyone out before an exacting fixture-list where establishing team cohesion and balance must be prioritised over expecting individual brilliance. Worryingly for AVB, this is the department in which they are falling short.
Much of that is down to the injuries of Aaron Lennon, something of an elephant in the White Hart Lane dressing room. Wax lyrical about Bale's inspiring presence all you want, but Lennon's recent absence (due to hamstring niggles) appears to be having as significant an impact on a functional formation.
Moussa Dembele initially tried to deputise at wing, but that move only succeeded in destabilising the midfield and making an aggressively average Fulham unit look like world-beaters. While Lennon has since returned to the right flank, he is said to be on the verge of rupturing his muscle. So Villas-Boas must continue to weigh up the dangers of risking his perishable goods, or reshuffling the likes of Dembele and Benoit Assou-Ekotto into unaccustomed roles.
However, if the Portu-geezer has a problem is it surely the sorry state of affairs at striker. You'd have to rifle through some dusty scoring annals to uncover exactly when Emmanuel Adebayor or Jermain Defoe last bagged a league goal. And while Defoe continues to look lively, Adebayor is once again proving that the worst thing a club can do is give the Togolese a new contract.
So while Spurs' slide has been stopped, some gaps need plugging if they are to fulfill their Champions League ambitions. The ghosts of last season's late collapse - in which they only recorded four wins from their remaining 12 ties - hang in the air as ominous portents of what can happen to a seemingly impregnable position. And with an upcoming schedule that features Everton, Chelsea and Man City, not to mention the Europa League distraction, Villas-Boas is taking nothing for granted.
Chelsea still have a game in hand with which to leapfrog Spurs. Arsenal, for so long the personal Terminator of Tottenham, are now restored of confidence and body to chase relentlessly till the league's conclusion. Both those teams also have a superior goal-difference to the men in white (worth a point at this crucial stage), which only adds to sense of avarice about the current quotes of [1.84] to back on a Spurs Top Four Finish.
Still, at least no-one can rob them of that final spot by winning the Champions League itself, as Chelsea did last year. And if Spurs can safely negotiate their immediate choppy waters, a more tranquil sea of relegation candidates awaits for their championship run-in.
So if the prospect of European qualification hasn't exactly been laid at Spurs' feet, it remains assuredly in their hands.