Yet again at this time of year it feels like it’s been one step forwards, another season just about over. It’s no longer as surprising, but it’s still just as gutting, always turning corners to find Spurs standing right back where they started with a ‘wasn’t me, guv’ shrug of the shoulders.
Personally, other than picking Doherty ahead of Aurier, I can’t really fault Mourinho for the line-up against Arsenal last weekend, and I can even understand the theory that Doherty is less of a risk in games like that than Aurier.
But I can and will fault him for the aimless performance that had that long Lilywhite streak of Spursy running right through it, allowing Arsenal to utilise the same simple move down Doherty’s flank repeatedly without shuffling the pack to address it: Even when he brought Sissoko on, it felt as if the Frenchman had been programmed to avoid that part of the pitch.
Once upon a time, the difference between our goal and their goals would have meant something to me about the difference between the two clubs – ours a creation of individual brilliance which oozed style, Arsenal’s first a scuffed shot which deflected then bobbled in and their second a penalty which many will feel should have been a goal kick.
But the truth is Lamela’s goal came out of the blue, needed the stars to align to come off, and Arsenal might have already been out of sight by the time we got around to stringing together the three relatively simple passes it took to cut this Arsenal defence open, while the scuffed nature of their equaliser was down to the quality of the finish, not the well drilled and often repeated move that created it, and their winner was yet another move which started with the ball safe in Hugo’s hands five seconds before Sanchez gave the ref a decision to make.
But then we come to Thursday and Mourinho runs out of excuses with me. The club played 12 games to get to this stage in the Europa and although I wouldn’t take anything for granted against any of the teams left in it, you have to think the idea of beating Villarreal over two legs and then, most likely, Arsenal over two legs, to have the chance of facing any one of Granada, Manchester United, Roma or Ajax in the final felt a better bet for us to get back into the Champions League than overhauling a six point gap between us and Chelsea over the next ten Premier League games given we’ve not managed to reduce that gap across the last six and Chelsea are still unbeaten in the league under Tuchel?
Why, then, would you go with a midfield of Winks and Sissoko and a central defence of Dier and Sanchez? Irrespective of the quality of these players as individuals, they’re the club’s weakest and least trusted pairings in those key areas. If they wouldn’t generally be trusted against so-called also-rans in the Premier League, why would you trust them in a one-off game away from home against a side who had absolutely nothing to lose?
Why would you, Jose? Why?
Fair enough, other than Winks for Ndombele and Lucas for Son, it was pretty much the same line-up that put Zagreb away 2-0 at The Lane, but Ndombele influenced that game in a way Winks simply never has, and as much as we had them on the back foot at home and were well worth that 2-0 win, Zagreb were no mugs.
We also had the safety net of the second leg taking the pressure off a bit.
Normally positive about our chances of winning to the point of stupidity, I knew we were out the instant their first goal flew in. My only surprise was it didn’t end up in a penalty shoot-out with Sissoko, Dier, Bergwijn and Vinicius missing, meaning Kane never got a chance to take his.
As for where we go from here, if we don’t beat Villa today, you have to wonder.
A win, and depending on what West Ham manage against Arsenal, we could somehow be fifth and just three points off fourth, the futility of hope fooling us into believing it might all be alright after all.
Lose and we might only be a couple of points off tenth, limping through games that mean nothing ahead of City at Wembley: The same as Carabo Cup final defeats to Manchester City did huge damage to Arsenal’s final season under Wenger in 2018 and Chelsea’s only season under Sarri in 2019, a loss without Champions League qualification will probably be enough for Levy to axe Mourinho. Even a win without Champions League qualification might not be enough to save him.
So as flat and pointless as football feels after last Sunday and Thursday, today is a must win game for Mourinho and, I imagine, a high number of the players on the periphery of his first team.
And luckily, lately, we do tend to win against Villa, our only loss in the last nineteen games against them coming in the only one of these games I’ve attended, a dire 0-1 against Tim Sherwood’s Villa soon after our last appearance in an EFL Cup Final back in 2015.
Since then, we’ve won five on the bounce, and that defeat halted a winning streak of six on the bounce.
We got lucky last season, though, Son’s last minute winner settling a topsy-turvy mess of a performance that was fun enough to watch all the same at a time when Villa were going through a horrible slump that nearly cost them their Premier League status between beating Leicester in the EFL Cup semi-final and then losing to City in the final.
If that sounds familiar – the only teams we’ve beaten since Brentford in the semi are Marine, Wycombe, Sheffield United, West Brom, Burnley, Fulham, Wolfsberg and Palace – I have one straw left to clutch: The last time a team from Manchester were in with a serious shout of winning the quadruple back in 1998/1999, we were the only team Tottenham enough to get in their way as the one silver lining to the cloud of George Graham’s reign slowly began to take shape.
Come on you Spurs!