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Commentary

Spurs close to glory, but must set priorities straight

Harry Kane and his Tottenham Hotspur team-mates stood on the pitch at Wembley last season, clutching their losers' medals, hair still soaked from the rain, spirits down by their boots while they looked up at the royal box.

Mauricio Pochettino insisted that his players stay on to salute John Terry and a celebrating Chelsea as the Blues lifted the League Cup.

It was a matter of "respect", the Spurs manager insisted later, and he also wanted to make his side experience "the feeling you don't want to repeat again", the pain of being so close to glory, within touching distance of silverware but leaving empty-handed and broken-hearted.

Shrewd signings have since bedded in, like the box-to-box patroller Dele Alli and one of the defenders of the season in Toby Alderweireld.

Several motivations drive Pochettino's players individually, but that collective suffering at Wembley continues to stoke the dressing room fire.

As in many professions, setbacks provide impetus. Alex Ferguson constantly proclaimed that the sweet sensation of success lasted scarcely an hour, rarely longer than the kit took to be loaded on to the team bus, while defeat lingered like an unwanted guest, residing in the deepest recesses of the mind, impossible to evict.

Even now, the old laird of Old Trafford is probably still chuntering on to some stranger about the number of opportunities Manchester United squandered against West Ham United on the last day of the titanic 1994-95 season, or the failure to take any of their many chances against Borussia Dortmund in 1997 in the Champions League.

So when people say that Spurs have come from absolutely nowhere to compete for this season's gloriously unpredictable Premier League race, they forget "the feeling you don't want to repeat again".

They ignore the presence of a canny catalyst in the form of Pochettino, an intelligent Argentinian who deliberately built a hurt locker into the dressing room. Spurs have a point to prove, a score to settle, a campaign to win.

But which one? Spurs, lying second in the league after their stunning result at Manchester City, are in action twice in the Europa League and once in the FA Cup before leaders Leicester City don their boots again. Few occasions have presented themselves in recent times where Spurs have to pick their targets this wisely. It is 55 years since they were last champions of England and this must be their focus.

Regular attendees of Premier League matches understand it is not the most eminent year in terms of technical or tactical quality, and the real stars are at play elsewhere, notably at Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich - and arguably Paris Saint-Germain and Atletico Madrid - but this is undeniably one of the most thrilling of seasons.

This is also one of the most significant moments in Spurs' history, which dates back to 1882.

Spurs have to seize this moment in the league now as next year will be a congestion zone, with less room for manoeuvre as Manchester City rebuild under Pep Guardiola, Liverpool continue to revive under Juergen Klopp and a stalled Manchester United apply new jump leads, probably in the sparky form of Jose Mourinho.

Now is the hour. So much is right for Spurs. The mission is there post-Wembley.

The requisite esprit de corps is there. The perfect manager is there. Pochettino works his players hard, even to the extent that some feel matches are less demanding than the daily sessions at Enfield. He has forged the right balance between defence and attack, made good players like Eric Dier and Danny Rose better, backed young Alli and created a platform for Kane. Not since the Argentinian, then a stylish, long-haired centre-back, dived in on Michael Owen in Sapporo at the 2002 World Cup Finals has he done England such a favour.

If Spurs are to train on, belying their ancient reputation as brittle competitors, suitable only for Cup runs, not the marathon of league combat, they need one thing: Rotation.

Spurs have been down this road before, and found it led only to a dead end because of Lasagna-gate or distractions surrounding talk of Harry Redknapp becoming England manager. Will Spurs slip up? Will the old Tottenham resurface?

Meanwhile, others make strong claims to the throne, from a Leicester side unencumbered by distractions to a revitalised Arsenal.

If Spurs are to train on, belying their ancient reputation as brittle competitors, suitable only for Cup runs, not the marathon of league combat, they need one thing: Rotation. If they are to avoid "the feeling you don't want to repeat again", Spurs cannot commit their A-list to Europa League or FA Cup action.

Pochettino can call upon decent understudies for journeys on the B-roads, such as Ben Davies, Kieran Trippier, Nacer Chadli, Ryan Mason, Michel Vorm, Nabil Bentaleb and Josh Onomah.

Kane is the key. If the centre-forward is likely to be involved against Fiorentina in Europe and Crystal Palace in the Cup, it could be a risk. Fatigue claimed the 22-year-old at the end of last season, the striker scoring only twice in their final 12 matches.

This term, he has featured heavily in the Europa League, played a part in all their FA Cup games (albeit twice from the bench) and contributed to 383 of England's 540 minutes.

His side face a gruelling run-in, including trips to the Boleyn, where Slaven Bilic will set an ambush, to an Anfield dancing to king Klopp's tune and to the Bridge, where Chelsea fans will demand Diego Costa pile into pretenders who have become contenders. Spurs must avoid the prospect of watching others collect trophies. Pochettino has to prioritise the Premier League.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 17, 2016, with the headline 'Spurs close to glory, but must set priorities straight'. Print Edition | Subscribe