In pursuit of Champions League football – Tottenham’s tightrope to top-four finish

Tottenham Hotspur’s quest for only their second top-four Premier League finish in five years took a tumble a fortnight ago as Wolverhampton Wanderers triumphed 2-1 in North London.

Spurs seemed on their way to avenging the reverse-fixture heartache at Molineux when Dejan Kulusevski hauled back Joao Gomes’ first-half opener, yet Wolves had the last laugh.

After suffering their first league loss since late December, the Londoners head into Saturday’s home clash against Crystal Palace trailing fourth-placed Aston Villa by five points, albeit with a game in hand. 

Spared of midweek FA Cup duties, manager Ange Postecoglou has had two weeks to rally his troops and prepare them for a must-win encounter against fellow London rivals.

Despite Palace’s underwhelming campaign, Tottenham can’t take their upcoming contest for granted as new boss Oliver Glasner launched his managerial tenure with an emphatic 3-0 win against Burnley. 

Palace’s visit to the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium is also a dress rehearsal for a top-four six-pointer against Villa in the East Midlands, highlighting the significance of picking up three points this weekend.

With 13 Premier League games left, there’s still plenty of time for Spurs to leapfrog Unai Emery’s high-flying side and return to Europe’s top table, though the road to a coveted top-four finish ought to be tumultuous. 

Pivotal fixtures

As aforementioned, Spurs’ showdown against Villa is a textbook definition of a must-win match, especially with the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City waiting in the wings. 

Postecoglou’s men would be forgiven for dropping points in those high-profile match-ups, though a margin for error narrows down in forthcoming games against Fulham, Luton Town and Nottingham Forest.

Those three encounters form part of a relatively winnable five-game stretch, bookended by a potentially crucial trip to St James’ Park to meet out-of-sorts Newcastle United.

Regardless of the Magpies’ troubled campaign, they’re always a tricky team to face on their home ground. 

Tottenham will probably have to seek three points on Tyneside to increase their top-four chances, not least because a daunting three-game sequence against the abovementioned heavyweights comes next.

Give Dragusin the benefit of the doubt

Winter arrival Radu Dragusin has had to settle for a mere eight minutes of top-flight action since swapping Genoa for London in January.

Postecoglou’s hesitance to give the Romania international his first Premier League start could be attributed to his unlimited trust in Micky van de Ven and Cristian Romero. 

However, while the young Dutch gun continues to impress in his maiden Premier League season, the Argentine’s temper and proneness to mistakes have recently come to the fore.

Romero has been a loyal servant since joining the club from Atalanta but now could be a good time for the Australian manager to bench him and test out a new centre-back pairing. 

Bissouma Out – Bentancur In 

Yves Bissouma has established himself as a permanent first-team fixture since Postecoglou touched down in the capital, in part thanks to Rodrigo Bentancur’s lengthy spell on the sidelines.

And while the 27-year-old impressed in the earlier stages, his form has been in a steady decline as the season progressed, not to mention his propensity for bookings. 

Bissouma has so far earned five yellows and two reds, but it’s not nearly as troubling as his erratic passing and poor decision-making in dangerous areas.

On the other hand, Bentancur has been a dependable deep-lying midfielder since switching from Juventus, while his athleticism and technical attributes would fit perfectly next to Pape Matar Sarr.

The Uruguayan demonstrated his qualities in several high-stakes fixtures, including a 2-2 draw at Manchester United last month when he netted an all-important equaliser. 

Difficult but not impossible

Overcoming Villa in their backyard is a tall order, but achieving that feat could make the difference come May. 

However, even if Tottenham emerge victorious from Villa Park, they’ll still have to show consistency down the final stretch to prevail in this evenly-contested race.

Scoring has not been a problem for Postecoglou’s men, but there’s ample room for improvement at the back as Spurs have only managed five clean sheets in 25 league matches this term.

Replacing Romero with Dragusin could be a season-defining shift, but it’s up to Postecoglou to decide whether that’s a risk worth taking. 

One way or another, Tottenham must find a way to stop leaking goals at this rate if they’re to bolster their hopes of securing Champions League qualification. 

There’s a feeling that it will come down to addressing this issue.