Tottenham v Manchester City: Why Andre Villas-Boas still has much to prove with Spurs hungry to join elite
Technocrat manager insists four wins will silence doubters and earn top-four place
You turn off the M25, drive a few miles through rural Middlesex, swing past a pair of autograph hunters and stop at the gatehouse. Beyond is a gleaming steel-and-glass structure that would not look out of place alongside Heathrow's Terminal Five.
This is Tottenham Hotspur's new £45m training complex. Amid its beautifully manicured acres the Lilywhites are planning for world domination or, at the very least, a first League title since 1961. It is a long, long way from the converted school at Mill Hill where Jürgen Klinsmann parked his VW Beetle and a significant step up from the intervening base in Chigwell. The burning question, however, at this complex fit for heroes is: are the team worthy of it? And is the manager?
Last May Daniel Levy, who in the mind's imagining has an underground bunker on-site, where he strokes his cat, told Harry Redknapp he had wound down his car window for the last time on Spurs' behalf as he had taken the club "as far as he could". Redknapp, having lifted the club from the relegation zone to twice finish in the top four, was understandably miffed.
The old-school gaffer was replaced by a continental technocrat, Andre Villas-Boas, still bruised after his experience at Stamford Bridge and itching to prove Roman Abramovich wrong. Spurs fans were initially underwhelmed at the appointment of a Chelsea reject but began to warm to him during a tilt at glory in the Europa League.
That adventure, however, came to a shuddering halt in a ghastly penalty shoot-out in Switzerland nine days ago. Now the focus is back on the domestic arena and, for Tottenham fans, the dreaded prospect that the annual spring collapse will be repeated, the Champions League will elude them, and, worst of all, they will finish below Arsenal for the 18th successive season. That did not look likely on 3 March, when Spurs beat their local rivals to move into third place, seven points ahead of their rivals.
On Sunday, White Hart Lane hosts another potentially pivotal match. Outgoing champions Manchester City are the visitors in a fixture which last season ended in a 5-1 defeat for Spurs. It is the first of six demanding fixtures from which Villas-Boas believes his team will need four wins to secure a qualifying place for the Champions League.
That target is the bare minimum, admitted Villas-Boas yesterday. "If you want to move forward, you want to be in [the Champions League]." Fourth, though, is what Redknapp achieved. Is there progress in other areas? "That is a question that has to be answered by the club's owners," Villas-Boas said.
Pointing towards the development of players such as Steven Caulker and Tom Carroll, he said: "It's something we see as good for the future, but achieving results in football is as decisive as putting people through."
There are other managers who would seize upon the chance to put a gloss on their results but Villas-Boas was not in the mood to do so yesterday. Not that he was the wary, defensive creature of his dog days at Chelsea. The Portuguese is notably more relaxed at Tottenham. By way of illustration his press conference is conducted from a platform designed to give TV cameras a clear view of him (and the backdrop of sponsors' logos). But once the cameras are turned off he descends to the floor and speaks to the written press in a less formal setting. Nevertheless he needs to win tomorrow, and prevent a season which seemed so promising from drifting away.
Fifth place, two points adrift with a game in hand. Would he have taken this position at the start of the season? "Probably. The only thing is that we were in a better position. That is the downside."
Money screams in football, with wage bills usually correlating to finishing position. Spurs have the Premier League's sixth-highest revenue and wage bill (behind the top four and Liverpool). Redknapp over-achieved to finish fourth last season.
If Villas-Boas does not match him there are mitigating circumstances. His squad has more depth, but less quality. Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Ledley King have gone. In their place are Mousa Dembélé, Clint Dempsey, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Caulker and, since January, Lewis Holtby. Lacking a playmaker, Villas-Boas had hoped to get Joao Moutinho from his old club Porto, and a striker in January, but in both cases Levy's hardball negotiating technique failed. Several of the new players have been disappointing, especially in terms of goalscoring. He has also had misfortune with injuries, with Scott Parker, Sandro and Younès Kaboul missing large parts of the season.
There is better news on that front as the season nears its climax. Gareth Bale, upon whose shoulders Spurs have often been borne this season, is set to return against City, assuming he comes unscathed through training today, as should Jermain Defoe. Aaron Lennon could be on the bench.
Bale's presence, said Villas-Boas, could frighten City. More likely is that it will provide his team-mates with a much-needed injection of confidence. While the manager insists the players will not be affected by memories of previous spring slumps, the fans fear a repeat and that can create a tension which transmits onto the pitch.
Villas-Boas is heartened by his players' performances against the bigger clubs and in bigger games this year. "Sometimes in football you need these moments of pressure and tension to excel; maybe that can be a decisive factor for us."
Then he heads off, across the marble-floored open-plan reception with its giant video screen showing Sky Sports, hoping the headlines he sees when he comes to the office on Monday are favourable.
Money talks: Spurs’ potential prize
* The difference between Champions League and Europa League football is significant financially for Tottenham. The north London club earned £27.3m in prize-money for reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League in 2010-11; they are likely to receive no more than £8m for reaching the same stage of the Europa League this season.
Spurs’ turnover also fell to £144m in the last financial year, down from £163m in their Champions League season.
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