As the race for the top four of the Premier League comes nicely to the boil, the saga took yet another intriguing twist during Tottenham’s Europe League clash with FC Basel.
Spurs have been in and around the Champions League qualification places all season and since the turn of the year have been ultra-consistent as they have even been pressing for third in their attempts not to suffer the disappointment of last season when they missed out on a spot in the continent’s top club competition, albeit thanks to Chelsea’s amazing exploits in Munich.
Andre Villas-Boas’ side were riding the crest of a wave going into Thursday night’s game with the Swiss outfit at White Hart Lane with the undoubted star of the show, Gareth Bale, in particularly devastating form. The Welsh winger is widely tipped to be named PFA Player of the Year for a second time. However, things did not pan out quite how AVB would have liked as the Tottenham freight train encountered an especially bumpy section of track.
Expectations were high and a comfortable home win should have been on the cards. Sadly for Spurs, Basel had forgotten to read the script and took a two goal lead. With Europa League elimination staring them squarely in the face, Tottenham increased their intensity to retrieve a draw and give themselves a fighting chance at least for the second leg. But as an even greater concern for their Premier League campaign than their energy expenditure were the casualties suffered in the process.
And with the immediate prospect of fellow top four hopefuls Everton coming to town on Sunday, the absence of several key players could seriously impact on AVB’s plans. With Jermain Defoe’s muscle injury exposing Spurs’ woefully thin striking options, the last thing they could have done without were the losses of Aaron Lennon and top dog Bale, who both now look likely to spend an extended period on the sidelines.
The first of Tottenham’s rivals who could feel the benefit of their misfortune are the Toffees. After a post-Christmas dip in form which included their disappointing FA Cup exit, David Moyes men are on something of a recovery mission. The season began so brightly for Everton and promised much as they burst into the season with a cavalier style rarely seen from an often pragmatic team, especially one renowned for beginning their campaigns slowly. But just as a top four place became a real possibility, Moyes and his players seemed to go into their shell and they began to fall behind Spurs, Chelsea and Arsenal in the pecking order.
But now, with the season entering the final furlong, Everton have the opportunity to out-sprint their opponents with the finishing line in sight. An under-strength and potentially fatigued Spurs are first up for the Blues and a victory on Sunday would propel them right back into the Champions League picture. Moyes’ men outplayed Manchester City and then ground out another success against Stoke City in their last game to keep them hanging onto the coat tails of those above them. But despite Tottenham’s losses, Moyes must also do without two of his key players. Marouane Fellaini and Steven Pienaar, comparable to Bale and Lennon in their importance to the Everton cause, are both seeing out the final game of their two-match suspensions.
Two of the main reasons for an upturn in Everton’s recent league form are the return to fitness of Darron Gibson and Kevin Mirallas. Gibson, who is really maturing at Goodison Park after so long as a supporting cast member at Manchester United, is a calming and classy influence in the middle of the park and when he plays, the team operate with more poise and confidence. Mirallas, who was electric in the initial stages of the season after his move from Olympiakos, was beset by hamstring issues which blunted his speed and sharpness. But the Belgian forward is back on song and will be key in the latter stages of the fixture list.
However, the key man in Sunday’s game will not be on the pitch but in the dugout, and that man is David Moyes. An opportunity has arisen and it is up to the Everton manager to grasp it. Will he send his side out to attack a potentially weakened Spurs side when his natural instinct in the big games is to err on the side of caution? History suggests he won’t. On countless occasions when it has come to the crunch, he has shied away from ‘going for it’, but with his future in doubt and his legacy not yet comprehensively rubber-stamped on Merseyside, reaching the Champions League next season could secure his services at Goodison or at least boost his credentials if he ultimately looks elsewhere for employment. The Scotsman and his team are at an important crossroads. Have they got the gumption to go the right way? Tune in on Sunday to find out.