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May 19, 2013

Reflections on Spurs' narrow miss

It was after all the nervous tension had passed and a clearly disappointed Andre Villas-Boas had a moment to reflect that the Tottenham Hotspur manager was asked about what had ultimately cost his team residence in Champions League football.

There were, it must be said, almost as many agonising moments for regret during the campaign as there were incredible incidents in this frenetic match against Sunderland.

Perhaps most obviously, given that the transfer window will soon open, there was the failure to sign a forward in January that could have made such a genuine difference. The fact even Sunderland manager Paolo Di Canio mentioned this emphasised that Tottenham must now strengthen significantly to make that step.

• Fitch: Diary of a sad end to a Tottenham season
• Randall: Last stand not enough to escape fourth-bottom

Then there were the four points dropped to relegated Wigan, as well as the double defeats following the derby.

Just as Spurs failed to sign in January in order to consolidate their position, they also failed to build on that supposedly perception-shifting 2-1 victory over Arsenal. Tottenham immediately lost their next two games, against Liverpool and Fulham, despite leading in the first at Anfield with just half an hour to go. Far from that derby putting Villas-Boas's side onto a new level, the jolt only energised Arsenal. It might have been the ultimate Pyrrhic victory.

In the end, though, Villas-Boas settled on three key factors.

The first, somewhat surprisingly, was November's defeat at Everton. Although Spurs were leading 1-0 going into the 91st minute, they somehow lost 2-1.

"I would say, looking back, apart from those fixtures just after Arsenal [Liverpool and Fulham], Everton away was probably the game that cost us most."

What certainly seems true is that game marked a turning point. Before then, Spurs had set the season's record for squandering points from a winning position late on. After it, they didn't consider another clutch goal after the 82nd minute.

By contrast, they started to score them. The lateness of Gareth Bale's magnificent match-winner against Sunderland was in keeping with a number of recent comebacks -- not least against Manchester City.

It also, however, threw up the other great what-if of the season and the day.

Given how nervous Arsenal looked early on at Newcastle, and how much impetus Spurs seemed to have early on against Sunderland, there is the distinct possibility that a goal at White Hart Lane could have caused the pressure to build on Arsene Wenger's side to the point of cracking. It certainly would have made things much more complex and open to the capricious nature of fortune.

On that note, Spurs could not really be criticised for failing to draw first blood. Instead, their own blood boiled as they saw two legitimate penalty shots waved away. The latter was cast-iron, but it was the first that caused the most regret.

With Bale typically surging forward, it left makeshift full back Sebastian Larsson with no option but to stick out an arm. The winger went tumbling to the turf inside the Tottenham box only for Andre Marriner to raise a yellow card. From 40 yards away, the referee had adjudged it a dive.

Villas-Boas cited that as the second factor.

"I don't want to put the spotlight on the referee, but I think it will be absolutely decisive, on a fixture when emotions are felt very, very strongly -- despite distance between the grounds, we would obviously have to score it, but it would certainly be felt at Newcastle, and it would certainly change the running of this game, too, Sunderland would have to be more adventurous, and so there would be more space.

"It is a disappointing decision; it could have potentially changed the nature of [the] other game, too."

The next moment, in the 51st minute, summed that up. Although Carlos Cuellar blatantly stuck a hand out when blocking Emmanuel Adebayor's shot, Marriner again waved play on. The difference with this one -- other than the clarity of the incident -- was that, just as Spurs were lamenting a 40th consecutive Premier League game without being awarded a penalty, Arsenal were building the move that would give them their 11th win in 14.

That, really, is the final factor.

Ultimately, Spurs didn't buckle. They didn't surrender to circumstance -- not even when Jack Colback improbably kept out both Scott Parker and Aaron Lennon with two incredible goal-line blocks. Instead, they illustrated admirable character to overcome such chaos and claim a brilliant winner through Bale.

That gave them 72 points, enough to qualify for the top four in all but one of the seasons since the Champions League expanded. For all their own issues, Spurs were in a chase with a team that produced title-winning form for the last third of the season.

"Arsenal went on an absolutely amazing run. Credit to them. They had stability in the final part of season to finish very, very strongly, which is extremely important.

"We had a great finish to [the] season. We have to be aware. It's what I told you in the press conference [on Friday]: Before next year we have to understand that independent of making it or not -- and we didn't make it -- we would have to raise the bar again because our competitors will do the same. We got ever so close, but they will do their job in window, and we will do ours the Tottenham way, scouting properly, look for good grabs in summer window to make it a stronger squad.

"This year is very, very unusual in that we got 72 points, but we didn't make it. But we can reflect on this amount of points."

As such, no one can say this was typical Tottenham.

It was just a wholly untypical season.

For Villas-Boas, that is promising for the future. The only problem is that future, for next season, at least, doesn't feature Champions League football or the riches it involves.

It is not just reflection that is now needed -- but action.

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