Dawson's drive will lead Spurs assault on top four

Captain says Tottenham can mount challenge to top flight's big spenders

Tottenham Hotspur enjoyed a memorable debut campaign in last season's Champions' League, reaching the quarter-finals before losing to Real Madrid.

But now, after their fifth-place finish in the Premier League, players and fans face the anti-climax of the Europa League, in the knowledge that they are more widely tipped to fall to sixth place than to rejoin the top four.

The funds available to Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs suggest that there is only one place free, which Arsenal and a well-funded Liverpool are expected to dispute. But Michael Dawson, the Tottenham captain, refuses to concede that his club cannot fight their way back.

"We're aiming to be in the top four, we've been in it, and the lads are hungry to be in it again," the Yorkshire-born central defender said. "Of course you're disappointed not to be in the Champions' League. It's where you want to be playing, and you speak to the fans – we travelled with thousands everywhere we went and they loved it as much as the players. You want to be playing against the best players but you've got to earn the right to be back there."

Dawson missed all six group games after injuring knee and ankle ligaments making only his second appearance for England, against Bulgaria in September. "We played the two games against Young Boys to get into the group stage, and two weeks later I got injured and I was out for two months, which ended up being three. The lads were fantastic, and we were still in the competition by the time I was fit again."

Dawson is also seeking a return to the England squad for next month's Euro 2012 qualifiers. "I played in the last qualifier against Wales, a friendly against Denmark and then I wasn't in the squad against Switzerland in the summer after starting the previous two games – disappointing for me. Pulling on that shirt, walking out, the national anthem, there's no better feeling. But we've got some top players in my position, Rio, JT, Jags [Phil Jagielka], Joleon [Lescott], Gaz Cahill, top competition."

The same problem faces Spurs in their quest for the top four – too many candidates for too few places. But Dawson knows that, on their day, they can beat most of their rivals. If anything, it was the failure to take maximum points from relegated Blackpool and West Ham that cost them a second tilt at the Champions' League.

"In the first game of the season [a goalless draw with City at White Hart Lane], Joe Hart – what a performance. He got them a point. We were 2-0 down to Arsenal and came back to win 3-2. We had a little dip towards the end of the season, but we showed character by winning at Liverpool 2-0, where we haven't won for a long time, and finishing fifth. We're going to these places where maybe five or six years ago we weren't getting wins, so we're moving forward. We know it's going to be tough, but we've got top players and we'll be giving it our all this year."