True, it’s the last event of the Premier League weekend, so by the time it comes round they’ll have had three decent nights of sleep and a couple of days of training since the 4-1Europa League victory over Anzki Makhachkala at White Hart Lane. But look at Europe-free Liverpool. Brendan Rodgers’s men have enjoyed a full week of preparation for this clash of ambitious clubs, each rated a title outsider yet desperate to qualify for next season’s Champions League.
Right now Liverpool lies second, five points behind Arsenal, but could lose ground and find Spurs drawing level on points if defeated at the Lane. For Spurs, placed sixth in this refreshingly fluid League, the cost of defeat could be even higher, leaving them vulnerable to the challenge of Newcastle United, another club free of the European complications that seemed to throw Alan Pardew’s plans off course last season.
In a way it’s crazy — everyone craves the extra action that the Champions League brings but there’s a growing view that it’s not so clever to tangle with its little and less glamorous brother the Europa, for which you qualify if you just miss out on the top four (or get into the Champions League but finish third in your opening group).
We’ll see how Spurs feel on Sunday evening. There are certainly two angles from which to look at Thursday’s win over Anzhi, secured when they were already assured of a place in the knockout stages as group winners. The highlight of a sixth victory in six Europa games was a hat-trick effort from $40 million striker Roberto Soldado, whose rare goals since his summer arrival from Valencia had tended to be penalties.
Soldado did score one from the spot against Anzhi, but only after an early double — a crafty header and crisp low drive – had ended an open-play drought of nearly two months. As Villas-Boas said postgame, "it was extremely important for him to get back to scoring.’" And timely, for rival striker Jermain Defoe had worked hard and hit both post and crossbar when given a chance in the previous Premier League game at Sunderland.
Now Soldado seems certain to start against Liverpool as Spurs strive to maintain an increasingly impressive recovery from the 6-0 thrashing at Manchester City that caused speculation — more than a little premature — about Villas-Boas’s future.
The benefits of the Europa sideline were felt by other members of a large squad — lavishly replenished with the $160 million Spurs received for Gareth Bale and others in the summer — that Villas-Boas will understandably take time to fashion into a true team. At the moment there is competition in most areas and it’s hard to forecast the 11 who will run out to face Liverpool.
Among those who staked claims to a shirt on Thursday were midfielders Lewis Holtby, whose energy was rewarded with a delightfully flicked goal, and Gylfi Sigurdsson, but the key development could turn out to be the return of Etienne Capoue in central defense, where against Liverpool he could be given the vital task of trying to limit the damage caused by Luis Suarez.
The Uruguayan has been hitting new heights — even for him — of late. Against Norwich he struck four goals with degrees of brilliance and laid on the other for Raheem Sterling. Suarez was almost equally tough on the next visitors to Anfield, struggling West Ham, and eight days of inaction should only have sharpened his appetite for destruction. But Spurs on their own pitch?
For Suarez it will be just another game to win and it’s fair to say that, on his form so far this season, he must be favorite to walk away with the Footballer of the Year trophy — even though he began the campaign under suspension for biting an opponent. My guess is that Villas-Boas will play him the compliment of double policing, with defensive midfielder Sandro likely to start.
Sandro, perhaps significantly, had a night off in midweek, along with fellow Brazilian dynamo Paulinho. It’ll be tough coping with Suarez and Liverpool despite the absence of injured England captain Steven Gerrard and, if Spurs can take all three points from this one, Villas-Boas can at least breathe a brief sign of relief, for his team will be right back among the Champions League chasers.
An immediate return to the top four is, however, unlikely for Spurs would have to overtake Manchester City to achieve that and Manuel Pellegrini’s team have won every home game in the Premier League so far, often emphatically (as Spurs, who let in six, would testify). Even leaders Arsenal, who suffered a 6-3 defeat at the hands of Pellegrini’s men, may struggle to restrain the juggernaut, for again physical factors will come into play.
Not only did City win 3-2 away to European champions Bayern Munich in midweek and Arsenal lose 2-0 in Naples — City had their game a day earlier, providing extra time to get ready for the Saturday-lunchtime clash at the Etihad. And City rested key men such as Yaya Toure and Sergio Aguero while Arsenal used more or less the side expected to do duty in Manchester — perhaps a reflection on the relative shallowness of their squad.
City’s victory is certain to see their status as title favorites strengthened but manager Arsene Wenger did not necessarily agree. "They are one of the teams to beat, but not more than any of the other ones we have played until now," added Wenger. "We have played Everton, who were as good as City, and Southampton, who were as good as City."
Even among the aristocrats of the Champions League, it sometimes seems, the game is becoming as much about physical condition as the technical excellence that — praise be — is marking the first half of this remarkable season.
FOXSoccer.com’s newswire services contributed to this report.