Tottenham in Champions League driving seat – barring any dodgy lasagne

Richarlison and Son Heung-min
Tottenham should have the edge in the battle for a Champions League qualifying place - Ian Walton/AP

It is almost 20 years since Tottenham Hotspur last played so few games, when the club narrowly missed out on qualifying for the Champions League on the final day of the season in what became known as ‘Lasagnegate’.

Tottenham played 40 games in that 2005/06 campaign and only needed to match Arsenal’s result on the last day to clinch Champions League qualification. But, after sickness swept through the team which may or may not have been the fault of a lasagne, they lost at West Ham United and missed out.

Fast-forward 18 years and Spurs are in a Champions League qualification battle with Aston Villa and Manchester United, with the three teams battling it out for fourth place, although fifth could also be enough. At least one of them will fail.

It may be Villa currently in fourth, but Tottenham, in many people’s eyes, have a an advantage which is neatly summed up by the fact Ange Postecoglou’s side entertain Crystal Palace on Saturday on the back of a two-week break and then travel to Villa three days after the Midlands side will have played away at Ajax in the last-16 of the Europa Conference League.

Martin Jol and Robbie Keane console each other in 2006
Tottenham lost out on Champions League qualification when in the box seat on the final day of the 2005-06 season after some of their squad succumbed to food poisoning - Hugo Philpott/ EPA

While Villa will play a minimum of 52 matches this season, Tottenham – who have a game in hand in the League – are guaranteed to play just 41, which is less than the entirety of the top flight apart from Sheffield United, who will finish on the same number. The fact Spurs did not qualify for Europe and played just three times in the cups this season has left Postecoglou’s side with preparation time and a run-in his rivals would dream of, although a tough run of games in April and May awaits.

United, who started the season in the Champions League and are still in the FA Cup this season, will play at least 50 games and Wolves – who will play 47 if they reach the cup final – are the only team other than Spurs currently in the top half of the table who will finish on less than 50.

Postecoglou, though, insists he would much prefer his team to be playing more games, having been used to a packed schedule while he was in charge of Celtic.

“I think, for us, a club who wants to compete at the highest level against the best, you need a strong squad and to have a strong squad you need consistent games and consistent game time and opportunities,” said Tottenham head coach Postecoglou.

“At the moment, if we get an injury then we’re liable to throw in somebody who hasn’t played for four or five weeks. It’s not easy on that player, whereas if you’ve got games, there’s a natural rotation that you need to make all the time and also gives you a little bit of rhythm.

“I had the other extreme of 60-plus games at Celtic, but I found that a lot easier to manage than having less games or having a disrupted season like we’ve had this year. I don’t think there’s an advantage or disadvantage, it depends how you use that time. If you ask me would I rather be in Europe? Absolutely, 1,000 per cent I’d rather be in Europe at this time playing games.”

Tottenham manager Ange Postecoglou/Postecoglou’s mature response to referee decisions shows up Mikel Arteta’s immaturity
Taking Spurs into the Champions League would be a great achievement for Ange Postecoglou - Shutterstock/Vince Mignott

Tottenham, Villa and United must all still play title contenders Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal, with Postecoglou’s team currently scheduled to face all three in successive games, as well as still having to travel to London rivals West Ham United and Chelsea. Like United, seven of Spurs’ remaining games are against teams currently in the bottom half of the table, in comparison to Villa’s five and all three teams still have six home games left to go.

Despite their relatively light schedule, Tottenham have suffered with injuries this season. Latest figures show Postecoglou’s team have been hit by 27 injuries, three more than Villa and one less than United. Richarlison is now out for three to four weeks, but Tottenham’s injury problems are easing, while Villa recently saw midfielder Boubacar Kamara suffer a season-ending injury and United may have lost Luke Shaw for the remainder of the campaign.

Given it could easily be another 20 years or so until they play so few games again, Tottenham must grasp their big Champions League chance – and avoid any lasagne along the way.

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