So this is it: the final furlong, the last hurdle, squeaky bum time. The question is 'Can Gareth Bale haul the flaccid, deadweight of his Tottenham Hotspur team across the Champions League finishing line'? Wednesday's clash with Chelsea will most likely provide the answer.
It's been a funny old season for Spurs, under new management and in many ways starting a new era. It was an uncomfortable beginning to the season while Andre Villas-Boas strived to put his own stamp on what had previously been a fairly complete squad. But after a couple of months, he quite visibly became more comfortable in his position and result after result rolled in. Unfortunately, much like last season under the leadership of head honcho for hire, Harry Redknapp, the final third of the season saw the wheels fall off. A possible chase for second place has turned into a desperate struggle to pull out of a dramatic nose dive and cling onto fourth. Arsenal and Chelsea have caught up, overtaken indeed, and the game is afoot.
If at the beginning of the season, you'd offered me at this stage, fifth place and two points behind Arsenal with a game in hand, I'd have bitten your hand off. It was difficult to see how, after losing the heart and soul of the team: Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart; we could compete with the big boys. AVB seemed to be instigating a fire sale at the club, with stalwarts like Michael Dawson also for sale at the right price. It would have been okay if replacements were lined up, but signings like a fourth goalkeeper (Hugo Lloris) and a desperate last minute grab for Clint Dempsey didn't inspire confidence. Thankfully, though, Dawson chose to stay and fight for his place and the two Belgians, Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembélé, were brought in. It was to be these three around whom AVB would build his team.
Oh, of course there is one other man who deserves a mention: Gareth Bale. You may have heard of him, he recently won some awards for something to do with Reginald D. Hunter. As it stands, Bale has scored twenty goals this season; but it's not so much the number as the importance of the goals he's scored that has been impressive. AVB has given him a free role in the team, possibly due to the lack of anyone else who can play off a striker, and he has flourished. It's my opinion that Bale is best kept out on the wing, as without another recognised left winger in the squad, the centre of the pitch becomes far too congested and any supply to Defoe and Adebayor is cut off. Having said that, I recognise we wouldn't have scored all those goals without him being in the middle. In my dreams during the coming summer (if Bale stays), AVB will bring in another genuine winger and allow Bale to play through the centre whilst still allowing play down the left. Assuming either of our strikers are in the mood, that scenario really does excite me (yes, I'm a boring man).
Of course that depends on whether or not Bale stays, and that most likely depends on Champions League football next season. We've been in this position before, our destiny in our own hands, but I doubt it's ever been so important. If Spurs fail to clinch a top four finish, it may be many years before they can challenge for that position again. Forget about improving the squad with the Champions League blood money, it's critical to keeping the squad at the same level.
With three games left, none of them are easy. The final two matches, against a hardened Stoke and a struggling but rejuvenated Sunderland, aren't in the least bit enticing; but they could be irrelevant if Spurs lose to Chelsea on Wednesday. A loss would likely put Chelsea out of reach and leave us relying on Arsenal to slip up. Unfortunately you sense that Chelsea and Arsenal just won't make a mistake in their other matches: they're used to playing big pressure games and have proven pedigree. With Spurs, everything's much more unpredictable.
One thing's for certain, though, Spurs need a performance from their star man if they are going to overcome Rafael Benitez's team. The game against Southampton on Saturday exemplified brilliantly the story of the last few months at White Hart Lane. All too often we've stutteringly passed the ball around the centre circle before either miss-firing striker fails to get a shot away, just waiting and hoping that Bale will get enough space to fizz in one of his now trademark winners from outside the box.
How AVB will set his team out on Wednesday could be crucial. In the last few games we've seen him start with Bale behind the striker for 60 minutes, before switching him to the wing brought life to a sagging attack. The line-up of course depends on who's available: both Dembélé and Lennon came off part way through the last match after labouring at the fringes of the game. If neither are fit to play then it really will just come down to how 'up for it' Bale is. A central pairing of Huddlestone and Parker frightens no one and with no wingers to keep the Chelsea full backs in check it could well turn into a massacre. A lot will come down to the strength of the defending. As brilliant as Vertonghen and Dawson have been, they're frequently seen to be left scratching their heads and pondering how AVB's high defensive line is supposed to work.
Spurs have managed to get results whilst playing poorly this season far more often than they have in years. I fear it may be a case of gritting the teeth, digging in, getting to seventy-five minutes unscathed and then hoping, praying, that Bale gets his one chance.