It was a weekend of cup semi-final surprises for Tottenham and players under their employ. Following on from the loaned-out Robbie Keane and his Celtic team crashing out to minnows Ross County in the Scottish FA Cup on Saturday, his parent club Spurs went down to a defeat that was every bit as surprising in the English version on Sunday.
Whilst Portsmouth might hold greater standing in the domestic game than the Staggies, their victory over Tottenham at Wembley was every bit as unexpected as the Scottish First Division side’s triumph at Hampden Park. Ex-Pompey boss Harry Redknapp may have had a few problems with team selection over the past months due to a spate of injuries in key positions, but his dilemmas have been nothing compared to those of the current boss at Fratton Park, Avram Grant. Not only has the Israeli had to contend with his own fitness-based problems but he has faced an ever-changing set of restrictions on who he can select due to the well-documented financial crisis affecting the club. To most observers, Tottenham’s place in the FA Cup Final was already booked for May but a combination of resilient defending and overdue good fortune earned Portsmouth the 30 minutes of extra time in which they scored twice to seal victory.
For Tottenham fans, the post mortem will have already begun but there is little need for sweeping changes at the club. The defeat last weekend at Sunderland has most likely handed the much-craved fourth place finish to Manchester City and the chance of silverware has gone with the FA Cup exit, but it will only have been small margins that have cost the team glory on two fronts this season. Portsmouth may have triumphed but it was not down to a poor performance from Spurs. Pompey were excellent in defence, with the relatively unfamiliar centre-back pairing of Ricardo Rocha and Aaron Mokoena particularly impressive between Steve Finnan at right-back and makeshift left-back Hayden Mullins. Tottenham created plenty of chances but were not quite able to put them away, with the heroics of the Portsmouth backline just as responsible as the profligacy of the Spurs finishing. Had this been a league game, Redknapp’s side would surely have won, but history has shown on many an occasion that the form book goes out of the window in the one-off arena of the cup. If writing off the defeat as bad luck on the day is a bit euphemistic considering the gulf that should have been present between the two teams it is still not cause for panic at exiting a competition just one step from the end.
Missing out on a Champions League spot for the 2010/11 season is arguably a bigger disappointment than losing to Portsmouth, and whilst all is not lost in the hunt for Europe’s headline competition it is asking for an increasing leap of faith to see Spurs overhauling City for fourth spot. Whether the Holy Grail is reached or not, there has still been plenty of progress this season, with the eight place of a year ago improved upon and the 51 points tally already comfortably surpassed. If Tottenham finish fifth they will sit behind three of the feted big four and the free-spending Citizens whose player recruitment has blown the financially-comfortable Spurs out of the water. If City’s strong finish to the season allows them out outmuscle their rivals from White Hart Lane, Redknapp has still masterminded a campaign where Tottenham have overtaken both Liverpool and Aston Villa in the queue. Spurs boast a more rounded squad than the Reds and have more depth than Villa, and with an extra option or two in attack will be capable of pushing City again next season. If City, as seems likely, have the Champions League to contend with next season, the added demands of that competition will counteract their ability to sign a higher calibre of player this summer, so Tottenham need not worry about slipping backwards.
There is little time for a cup exit hangover at the Lane with the imminent arrival of Arsenal for the North London derby on Wednesday. It is a game that Spurs need to win more than ever if fourth spot is to stay within reach and Redknapp sees it as the perfect fixture to face after such a disappointment. Nothing means more to the fans than games against your biggest rivals and this will help focus the players’ minds. There will be no room for wallowing in self-pity in the heated atmosphere against the Gunners and bouncing back with a win would be the perfect fillip after a rough couple of weeks. The suspended Wilson Palacios will be a big miss, but Arsenal have their own midfield absentees and will not relish the backlash from a wounded Tottenham side.