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May 6, 2012

Spurs fail to seize chance

On a day when Tottenham were offered a chance to add some glorious clarity to their incomprehensible season, Harry Redknapp's men surrendered the advantage once again in the race to secure automatic entry into next season's Champions League.

Just 24 hours after Arsenal invited them to step back through an open door in the race for a top-three finish after their remarkable 3-3 draw with Norwich, their North London rivals fluffed their lines as they chased a win that would have put them within touching distance of Europe's elite competition.

A red card for Spurs full-back Danny Rose early in the second half all but killed off their hopes of victory against a nervous Villa side who had taken a first-half lead through Ciaran Clark's deflected strike, and not even a spirited rally from the depleted visitors could give them the win they craved.

Tottenham now look set to be thrust into an unenviable position of waiting and hoping that Chelsea lose the Champions League final in Munich if they are to scramble into the competition themselves next season.

Redknapp, though, seemed surprisingly upbeat as he tried to put a polished gloss on his side's latest setback. "There is no doubt that this was a chance for us today as a victory would have guaranteed us a top four finish, but this is all still in the mix," he said. "Arsenal have got a hard game next weekend at West Brom, but we have a tough game against Fulham next Sunday and we need to win it. If we can win next week, it wouldn't surprise you if Arsenal drop points again, so third place is still a possibility for us.

"It was tough for us today after Danny Rose was sent off, but everything is up for grabs in the final weekend of the season. Chelsea, Newcastle and Arsenal are all in the mix for those top four positions. It's going to be exciting."

Tottenham's hopes in this game were temporarily revived as Sandro was fouled in the penalty box and Emmanuel Adebayor stroked home a confident penalty that rattled Villa's nerves as they fought for their Premier League lives, but Spurs failed to create clear-cut chances in the last half-hour.

The red card for Rose had more than just a numerical impact on Spurs as it also nullified the attacking threat posed by Gareth Bale, who was forced to plug the hole in the left full-back position, and yet they still had more than enough of the ball against a defensive-minded Villa side to snatch a winning goal.

Missing that touch of magic that made them irresistible for the first two-thirds of this season, Tottenham's players looked bedraggled and beaten as they trudged off the Villa Park pitch having suffered another hammer blow. To a man, they knew a glorious opportunity had slipped through their grasp.

Their opponents could feel satisfied with their afternoon's work as, just a day after supporters took out an advert in their local newspaper calling for Alex McLeish's resignation, the manager was relieved to have collected the point that secures his side's place in the Premier League for next season.

"The emotion I have right now is relief that we have done enough to stay up," McLeish said. "Spurs looked very threatening in the closing stages, but we held our nerve and concentrated fully until the end of the game to get a good point.

"All this has not been good for my ticker. I reckon I'm due a health check after it all. This has been as tough a season as I've had in my career, but I knew what I was taking on. I've always stood up to adversity and needed to do that again this season. It will not happen again so long as I'm here, that's for sure. I'm proud to be manager of this great club and hopefully the young lads we have had to play this season will benefit from what they have dealt with in the last few weeks.

"I expect to be here next season, but you never know what will happen in football. At this moment, the texts I am receiving from the chairman are all positive and I want that to continue. I bought into a project at Villa to reduce the wage bill and there has been some pain along the way in us doing that. In the end, we have got through this season and survived. Now I want to stay here to continue the work."

The post-mortem on Villa's turbulent season can be saved for another occasion, as this was a day when Tottenham's hopes of hanging onto star men like Luka Modric and Bale beyond this season was on the line, but now their fate is likely to be dependent on the results of Arsenal and Chelsea.

If Arsenal beat West Brom at The Hawthorns next weekend, Wenger's side will snare third position in the Premier League, leaving Spurs to lament on what might have been. Had they converted recent defeats against Everton, QPR and Norwich into draws or even wins, they would now be preparing for an end-of-season party at White Hart Lane.

Instead, uncertainty seems destined to hover over this club for the foreseeable future, even after the 'Redknapp to England' story has come to an end.

The excuse that a lack of squad strength may have drained Tottenham's over-worked first-choice players in the final two months of the season may be valid as their back-up performers have been exposed as second-rate, but the reality must be that Spurs have not been good enough to claim a top-three finish in a season when they have been offered so many opportunities to seal that lucrative deal.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Stephen Ireland. Oozing energy and halting so many of Tottenham's attacking bursts in the midfield, Villa's revitalised Irishman was superb as he led the Villa fight.

CORNER COUNT: Spurs won a total of 19 corners in this game, but their inability to make any of them count cost them time and again. Rafael van der Vaart's delivery is not up to scratch and neither is their lack of thought from corners and free-kicks.

UNLUCKY ROSE: Tottenham's Danny Rose saw red for violent conduct early in the second half, but replays suggested he was knocked off balance by a challenge from Charles N'Zogbia and was propelled into the onrushing Alan Hutton. The young Spurs full-back may have been a touch unfortunate.

ASTON VILLA VERDICT: The sparse collection of supporters who remained to cheer their team as they were paraded around the pitch confirmed this is a club lacking some spirit right now. Villa's fans were muted for long periods of this game and will be hoping for developments this summer that may revive their ambitions. For many, that will mean the departure of manager Alex McLeish, even though he seems determined to stay put.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Tottenham blinked once again as they caught a glimpse of a glittering end of season prize, with their first-half performance at Villa Park lacking the urgency and dynamism that may have been expected on a day when opportunity knocked. This is likely to have been their final chance to claim third place in the Premier League.

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