Moment that set Spurs on course for the top 4

Dan Carrier looks back on a pivotal match in a long, tiring campaign that saw Antonio Conte’s side edge their north London rivals

Thursday, 26th May — By Dan Carrier

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A BLEAK Saturday afternoon in January, and the fourth official holds up the number 28.

With Spurs trailing a goal to nil against League One Morecambe in the FA Cup third round, Tanguy Ndombele would surely get off the pitch in a hurry, so his replacement could have a go at putting right what Ndombele couldn’t?

Instead, the midfielder trudged off like a petulant pre-teen being told it was time to come inside for tea. Boos tumbled around the ground.

Looking back, five months later, this unpleasantness was a key moment in Tottenham’s season.

That January tie confirmed to manager Antonio Conte that to reinvigorate Spurs, he needed to call time on big-name let-downs like Ndombele and Dele Alli.

Arsenal were up next at home, and Tottenham were in the mood to take on their rivals. But one solo Covid case – and the fact Mikel Arteta had players on African Cup of Nations duty, not to mention a host of non-Covid-related injuries – saw Arsenal cry off.

For Spurs, the postponement was frustrating, and was followed by defeats away at Chelsea and Manchester United, meaning upper-mid-table mediocrity beckoned.

After Cristiano Ronaldo bagged himself a hat-trick, four teams and six points stood between Spurs and fourth spot. The topsy-turvy performances did not suggest the gap could easily be closed.

The damage done by the three-month reign of Nuno Espirito Santos looked too terminal to Tottenham’s Champions League chances – but as Conte’s side came round the final bend, something clicked.

The Italian got the team into their stride three months ago, when they went on a run that brought eight wins and two draws in 11 games.

Antonio Conte

While it went some way to hauling in those above Spurs, with three games to go, Arsenal were still in the driving seat. All they had to do was beat Tottenham in the finally re-arranged north London derby and they would bounce back down the Seven Sisters Road, Champions League qualification secured.

But Arteta’s team did not show up, and Spurs smashed them 3-0.

All was not lost. Arsenal then had another chance away at Newcastle, but Eddie Howe’s side were never troubled and won 2-0, leaving Tottenham with a clear route to fourth.

Against relegated Norwich at Carrow Road on Sunday, they were ready.

In past times, having to get something at Norwich on the last day of the season would have had most Spurs fans expecting the worst: the conditions were perfect for an ultimate piece of Spursyness. But Conte does not do Spursy. The goal was in sight and Conte’s charges were not – unlike their north London rivals – going to throw it away.

Such an achievement is a game-changer for Tottenham. In terms of adding to the squad, it is hard to think of many players who wouldn’t be interested in performing for Conte in the Champions League.

There is a silver lining for Arsenal, too, however. Led by Bukayo Saka, they could well win the Europa League, giving their fans a nice adventure and taking them to the top table a year down the line with cup-winning experience.

Spurs are not going to win the Champions League next season, but it will help Conte attract world-class talent. And these Champions League-calibre players will be on hand at the weekends to dish out thumpings against less able sides.

Wednesday night sojourns might not last much past Christmas, but it keeps Harry Kane happy and feels like a milestone for Project Conte.

Without a cash-splashing owner, the club needs the income. Qualification has gee’ed up the team’s superstars – Kane looks ready to give his all – and Conte can hunt for more polished signings.

In just six months, Spurs have changed direction and are getting back to the levels enjoyed under Mauricio Pochettino.

To have done so, and sneaked into Europe’s premier club competition under the noses of rivals Arsenal, is a welcome cherry on top of a long, tiring campaign.

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