Tottenham are in crisis, if only they realised it

A VERY TEPID Champions League exit, coming shortly after a FA Cup defeat at the hands of Championship side Sheffield United, a big money signing hitting-out at his lack of game time and a manager who hints that he’s leaving at the end of the season. The morning after losing to AC Milan 1-0 on aggregate, Tottenham have a few issues to deal with. If they win a trophy next season, the barren period would have been 16 years long.

Spurs remain one of football’s great underachievers; 16 major trophies, just two league titles and the last FA Cup won more 33 years ago. They’re won three European prizes, but the last of those was almost 40 years ago. In the Premier League era, Spurs have lifted just two, and they were both the Football League Cup. The last time Tottenham’s fans experienced such a dry period was between 1921 and 1951 and if you factor in the lost war years, it was a 23-season wait.

There is talk of Antonio Conte leaving, either via the chairman’s black cab or his own choice and Mauricio Pochettino returning to the club. Since the popular Argentinian left in 2019-20, some fans have longed for his return as if it was a utopian era. Pochettino had a decent and exciting team that helped England build Gareth Southgate’s nearly men, but he did not win a solitary bauble. His teams were attractive and competed but the Champions League final of 2019 represented the peak and since then, Spurs and Pochettino have looked a little lost. But is it wise to go back?

Second spells are rarely as interesting or as successful. José Mourinho, Malcolm Allison, Hellenio Herrera, Terry Venables, Howard Kendall, Kenny Dalglish and Carlo Ancelotti have all returned to clubs where they enjoyed considerable success in their first stint. It is very seldom the same experience, for a number of reasons.

Antonio Conte was always going to be a short-term hiring, because that’s the way he works. Like Mourinho, there’s a short cycle that ends when he decides the job no longer fits his requirements – at least that’s what it looks like from the observation platform. We live in a football world where players and coaches decide their own future and announce they are leaving, even if they are in contract. Conte is out of contract in the summer, so Tottenham are unlikely to offer him a new deal when his track record suggests he won’t be hanging around for much longer. It is almost inevitable that Conte and Tottenham will be parting company very soon. He seems to be sending signals to potential employers and he has, after all, had a rough time recently.

Where does this leave Spurs? Even without a lengthy contemporary honours list, the job is still one of the top assignments in European football. They have a spectacular stadium that is packed with 60,000 fans, they have stability, they still have some good players and they also have something of a blank canvas to offer – any form of trophy will be seen as success. 

Spurs need Champions League football to consolidate their position and to drive revenue generation, so the remaining weeks of the season are going to be vital. Conte and Mourinho were never going to work at Tottenham even if they possessed two of the strongest managerial brands in world football. If there is a football entity that still hangs on to the myth of a “club style”, it is Spurs. But they should have known how managers like Conte operate, his risk-averse approach is well known and it is what has made him successful. He was never going to change that. The same applies to Mourinho, and Nuno Espirito Santo, the other coaches since Pochettino left the club.

However painful it may be, it may also be the time to acknowledge that the Kane-Son years are coming to an end. Kane elected to stay at the club but two years on, he’s still without a medal and he’s approaching 30. He has netted 20 goals this season, but how much longer can he keep the current rather limited team afloat? Son, who is slightly older than Kane, is not the player he was. Most importantly, can they keep Kane, who the fans continually refer to as “one of our own”, as the club examines why they have failed yet again?

Graham Potter and Chelsea throw down the gauntlet

THE BEAUTY of two-legged football means that spectators can experience the tension, the drama and the joy of a deficit being overturned. In this age of de facto seeding that ensures the leviathans will almost always come out on top, the whiff of uncertainty that comes with accidental or instant elimination creates a product that still enables romance and the sentiment of heart-over-head thinking. 

Football has, largely, become a business sector that demands some level of guarantee, but there is still enough jeapordy and air of a precarious game of snakes and ladders. At Stamford Bridge on March 7, Chelsea climbed a ladder while Borussia Dortmund slid down a reptilian fireman’s pole to the land of forgotten last 16 losers.

Dortmund brought thousands of fans, all of whom seemed to be taken on a military march from one part of London to another by the Metropolitan Police. Was this, by any chance, why the game was really delayed? London has become very neurotic when it comes to large groups of German fans – witness the arrival of 10,000 Köln fans at Arsenal a couple of years ago. That Chelsea, a club whose past hooligan exploits were screened on BT Sport the same evening in the nostalgic film, Poundland, should be nervous about visiting fans seems rather ironic, but no matter how strict the ferrying and frisking, the Dortmund faithful, an extraction of their famed “Yellow wall”, still managed to smuggl- in flares or smoke bombs. Only the most intensive latex-covered health screen might have found where the pyro was really being stored.

Chelsea have turned around European ties before, some of which have been cemented in the club’s folklore; Bruges 1971, Arsenal 2004, Barcelona 2005 and Napoli 2012, to name but a few. But this current Chelsea is a fragile animal compared to some of its succesors and their coach, Graham Potter is managing on a tightrope. Under the previous owner, Comrade Abramovich, Potter would have been sacked three times over and although his situation may change drastically game-by-game, there is no smoke coming from the top of Chelsea’s East Stand to signal a change in management. Just yet, that is.

Chelsea’s players, to use a well-worn football cliché, did their “gaffer” proud. Stamford Bridge also rose to the occasion, perhaps spurred-on by the voiciferous Dortmund visitors. After the club’s pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey transfer sessions, it was no surprise that six of their starting line-up represented the new recruits to Todd Boehly’s Chelsea revolution. One of them, Raheem Sterling, who has looked out-of-place this season, scored the opening goal that brought the aggregate score to 1-1 and eased some of the nerves. Sterling, along with players like Kai Havertz, Mason Mount, Hakim Ziyech and Christian Pulisic, is said to be on his way out of Chelsea in the summer, but he showed why he has won so many England caps with that finish. What fans don’t always understand is that any club that spends money so quickly and with such abandon can also sell with the same level of impatience and speed. In other words, player turnover means player turnover.

Havertz, who hit the woodwork in the first half, also struck the upright with a penalty kick in the early exchanges in the second period. However, Auntie VAR came to the rescue for Chelsea as a cluster of yellow shirts seemed to encroach the area when the kick was being taken. Havertz tried again and this time, sent his shot just inside the post. Chelsea were now ahead on aggregate, but Dortmund had Jude Bellingham, the 19 year-old future of rock and roll football, so they couldn’t relax. Bellingham was arguably too relaxed when he spun his shot wide with the goal within easy reach in the 58th minute.

Chelsea remained in charge to win 2-1 on aggregate. You sensed the script was written that this was something of a defining moment of the season, although that could have been attributed to the “last chance” aspect of the game. They have been knocked out of both domestic cups by the same team (Manchester City) as they were last season when Liverpool beat them in both cup finals on penalties. They could – perish the thought – meet City again in the Champions League. This does hint at where currently Chelsea stand in the scheme of things, behind both these clubs, perhaps?

Over the two legs, Chelsea probably deserved to emerge triumphant, but Dortmund could also argue they might have won. They finished disappointed by the outcome, but their coach, Edin Terzić, demonstrated his class in the post-match summary, first of all congratulating the victors. According to visitors from North-Rhine Westphalia, BVB on the night were not the real Dortmund. For a start, they were without the player who scored the winning goal in the first leg, Karim Adeyemi. At home, they have done something this season that has eluded German football for quite a while, they have created competition in the Bundesliga title race. Bayern Munich and Dortmund are level on points after BVB’s eight successive league wins. They visit Munich on April 1, by which time, the league table may look very different. One thing is clear, however, Dortmund have built another compelling team.

As for Chelsea, the likeable Potter is safe for another few days. It is worth noting that when Chelsea won the Champions League for the first time in 2012, they were unfancied, and in 2021, Manchester City were expected to beat them. It isn’t always the very best team that wins the competition. It is not always the best Chelsea team that becomes European champions.