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 By Ben Pearce

Tottenham secure top four but 'nearly men' not good enough for some fans

There were times during the first half of Wednesday's desperately tense match against Newcastle when Tottenham were in real danger of delighting their critics and justifying all the doubts about their mental strength.

The final stretch of this season has resembled the disappointing finales to the 2014-15 and 2015-16 campaigns under Mauricio Pochettino.

In 2015 the north Londoners won only one of their six matches between April 5 and May 9, before rousing themselves to win the last two. The following year they took just two points from their final four matches, slipping below arch-rivals Arsenal on the final day.

This time around they won just one out of five games between April 14 and May 5, before again mustering the victory against Newcastle.

Only once, last term, have the north Londoners really finished strongly and an old issue seems to have returned, where a reliance on a group of key players has resulted in fatigue in the final straight.

That is not necessarily or entirely Pochettino's fault. Victor Wanyama effectively missed the first half of the season, while Harry Winks has missed the second half.

Erik Lamela started his campaign at the end of November. Danny Rose has rarely been fully fit for an extended period, and Toby Alderweireld suffered a serious hamstring injury.

Pochettino has not been able to rotate as much as he would probably have liked throughout the campaign, spreading minutes around evenly, and there has been an obvious toll.

Spurs have been crawling towards the finish line, and on Wednesday there was genuine concern that they might not get over it.

If Jonjo Shelvey's first half free kick had struck the inside of the post rather than cannoning to safety, Tottenham could have been in real trouble, facing an apocalyptic scenario where they squandered a 10-point lead over Chelsea and their Champions League spot just before their move to their new stadium.

Instead, thanks to that narrow let-off, a 50th-minute Harry Kane winner and a slip-up from Chelsea against Huddersfield, the north Londoners are home and dry with a match to spare and this season has to be viewed as a success.

How much of a success probably depends on where each supporter stands on Pochettino's divisive view that a domestic trophy will not transform the club; that only Premier League and Champions League success will have that effect.

Those who agree will surely hail this is a fine campaign -- an 8/10. The primary goal, as always, was to secure another top four finish and the fact that Spurs have done so while playing all their home games at Wembley is a fine achievement, especially after their ropey start at the national stadium. Indeed, they currently lie third.

Meanwhile, the north Londoners have taken a step forward in the Champions League, this time qualifying from their group, reaching the knockout stages and going toe to toe with Juventus in the last 16.

Tottenham have greatly enhanced their reputation across Europe by beating Borussia Dortmund (twice) and Real Madrid, and it now remains to be seen whether that new profile and respect will help when it comes to attracting prospective signings.

The let-down is the lack of a trophy, and some fans -- those who feel "the game is about glory", not third or fourth-place finishes -- could claim that a 10th successive year without silverware means this campaign can only be ranked as a 7/10, or a 7.5.

The FA Cup semifinal defeat to Manchester United was certainly a huge disappointment, especially after the similarly narrow loss to Juventus, and given that Spurs had also been beaten in the 2017 semi-final by Chelsea.

Once again it was a case of "so near but so far", and it is hard to argue with the club's "nearly men" image when it comes to the big knockout matches.

However, that same tag can be viewed positively -- it still feels that Spurs are close to fulfilling their potential, that silverware is achievable, along with a consistent presence in the Champions League.

That may not be enough for some players. Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose may follow in Kyle Walker's footsteps this summer. Mousa Dembele's future is unclear too and how Spurs replace those figures, if necessary, will decide their trajectory from here.

But for the rest, for senior men such as Hugo Lloris and Jan Vertonghen as well as younger players like Harry Kane and Dele Alli, there is surely enough promise and possibility to keep them optimistic about the future in north London.

Spurs nearly reached the FA Cup final and the Champions League quarterfinals after leading against Juventus and Man United. The new stadium is nearly ready.

A big transfer window lies ahead but, after this latest top four finish, Tottenham will believe they can get even closer to that elusive trophy and take another step forward on Europe's elite stage next season. There is still joy and excitement to be found in "nearly".

Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.


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