It is almost three years since Tottenham Hotspur played in one of the biggest games in their history, the Champions League final against Liverpool. Following on from their defeat to the Reds, the upward trajectory that the club had been on for several years turned quickly into regression, but they now face a critical summer as they look to build their way back up to where they were.
Perhaps chairman Daniel Levy was too hasty to sack Mauricio Pochettino just five months after that final, with Spurs having had three other managers since the Argentine left. Jose Mourinho tried his hardest to pick up where his predecessor had left off and managed to guide them to a Carabao Cup final, but was then relieved of his duties before the Wembley date. When former Wolverhampton Wanderers boss Nuno Espirito Santo took the job at the start of this season, it felt like the wrong fit. And although he won the Premier League Manager of the Month honours for August as Spurs won all their first three games without a single goal conceded, things quickly fell apart as they struggled both in the league and in Europe.
It was a stroke of fortune which saw a world-class coach in Antonio Conte available when the time came to hand Nuno his P45, and Spurs were put on the map again thanks almost exclusively to the respect their talented manager commands. Since the Italian’s arrival, he has guided his team from the middle of the pack to the cusp of Champions League qualification with just four games left to play.
A two-horse race has developed with bitter rivals Arsenal to finish in the top four, with Spurs currently two points behind the Gunners. Fate always works mysteriously in football, and Tottenham are about to play their biggest game of football since that 2019 final. It just so happens that they face Liverpool again. The match at Anfield on Saturday is crucial for their European hopes and more. People will say the biggest game will be the north London derby next week, but the importance of the local clash will be extinguished somewhat should Spurs drop points to Liverpool and fall four or five points behind Arsenal, who take on struggling Leeds United at the Emirates.
Spurs are reliant on qualifying for next term’s Champions League because their hopes of keeping Conte at the helm are dependent on them achieving that objective. The Italian is one of the best in the business and he has already been linked with another role at Paris Saint-Germain. He has shut down these links but that’s while his side are still in with a chance of returning to Europe’s grandest stage.
Should Spurs falter at this crucial hurdle, their destiny will likely be ripped away from their hands and so too will be their hopes of keeping Conte at the helm. The significance of this game for Tottenham cannot be overstated. A worrying chain of events could well occur should they not win this game and Arsenal beat Leeds. Conte may quickly become disillusioned at the prospect of another whole year without Champions League football and will likely be courted by clubs who can offer that to a manager who deserves to compete for the biggest titles.
If he were to leave, Spurs will be left with one of the biggest problems they will ever face. It will almost be impossible to replace the experience and success of Conte with available candidates out there at this moment in time and his successor will almost certainly be a downgrade. Think about Everton last summer, who after missing out on European football late in the day were powerless to stop Carlo Ancelotti leaving for Real Madrid. Now look at him! All the while, the Toffees are in a battle for Premier League survival.
Conte’s presence at Spurs has been huge in appeasing the likes of Harry Kane, who wanted to leave for Manchester City last summer in order to compete for titles in the few years he has left at his devastating best. Conte offers the hope that that can happen at White Hart Lane, and since he has been in charge it has been reported that Kane is now open to staying in north London. But Kane could well raise concerns again if Conte were to move on.
The club has slipped towards relative obscurity since that Champions League final three years ago, but they have already shown positive signs of recovery under Conte and the players cannot afford for that hard work to be undone. Dejan Kulusevski has been a revelation since joining in January but he’ll think twice about joining permanently if the man who brought him to the club is no longer there.
The last thing Spurs need is a fresh rebuild with a manager who doesn’t command the attention and respect of Conte, and a squad who can’t count on Kane and other star players sticking around. The club’s wait for a trophy has already lasted 14 years, and should this situation play out it could be a fair number of years yet until get their hands on a piece of silverware again.
Liverpool and Manchester City are already miles ahead of them in the Premier League and the gap will only stretch even further if Spurs have to press the reset button having spent the better part of a decade building what they currently have. Saturday’s match could barely be bigger.
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