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The Toe Poke

Spurs out to banish Champions League woe

Following the disappointment of missing out on the Champions League after several members of their team were struck down by a virus before the final match of the season at West Ham, Tottenham will be eager to banish those demons and break the stranglehold of the top four.

Although on paper at least the squad is stronger, the loss of Michael Carrick and Mido as well as the injury to Ledley King leaves a crack through the spine of the team.

Mido's permanent switch after a highly impressive loan spell appeared done and dusted, only for the fiery forward to come unstuck towards the end of last season due to both niggling knocks and alleged training ground disciplinary issues.

Carrick, meanwhile, heads to Manchester United for what many believe is a vastly inflated sum which may eventually net the north London outfit £18.6million and the ever-reliable King will be on the sidelines for at least two months.

However, gone are the days when Spurs lacked any kind of strength in depth or the spending power to rectify the loss of key players. As soon as it became clear Mido was no longer welcome, and jettisoned back to Roma, Spurs wasted little time in replacing him. Dimitar Berbatov joined from Bayer Leverkusen for £10.9m, just shy of the club's record signing, fresh from finishing second in the Bundesliga scoring charts with 21 goals.

With Berbatov added to the ranks, Spurs have a triumvirate of strikers - Robbie Keane and Jermain Defoe completing the set - who should provide the goals to again put the club in the hunt for a place among Europe's elite.

Ireland international Keane, after such an impressive 2005/06, will begin as first choice alongside the new Bulgarian, who has received glowing reviews in pre-season. If Defoe does continue to be benched there will be inevitable speculation over his future as the transfer deadline approaches. After missing out on the World Cup largely due to his lack of playing time last season, Defoe will be acutely aware of his need for match minutes as Steve McClaren looks for players to fill the boots of Wayne Rooney and Michael Owen in the opening internationals of the season.

Although Carrick had two superb seasons at White Hart Lane, the arrival of Didier Zokora from St Etienne for £8.2million provides a ready-made replacement. One of the most impressive players in Germany this summer, strong on the ball and full of skill, the Ivory Coast international could turn out to be one of the signings of the season.

Carrick's return of just two goals in 75 games is hardly irreplaceable, so if Zokora can get on the scoresheet more often Spurs will feel the switch has been beneficial. Of course, both Berbatov and Zokora will need to adapt to life in English football quickly. With a catalogue of foreign failures behind them, such as Goran Bunjevcevic, Sergei Rebrov and Heldar Postiga, the club are well aware of the pitfalls.

Zokora will have the experienced shoulders of Edgar Davids alongside him. Many thought the Dutch international - who remarkable has never cost a single penny in transfer fees - would depart the Lane after just one season but the bespectacled midfield maestro will be on hand to provide a guiding hand to Spurs' young stars and new faces.

Spurs are hardly short of options in midfield. In Aaron Lennon, boss Martin Jol has one of the most exciting young players in Europe. The former Leeds United trainee was a driving force behind Spurs' chase for European football after breaking into the team on a regular basis following the turn of the year, producing the form which left Sven Goran Eriksson with no option but to name him in the England squad for the World Cup.

Only 19, Lennon will be more closely watched this term but such is his lightening pace few will get within touching distance. There's every chance he'll be 'given the treatment' from time to time and it will be interesting to see how he deals with this.

In addition, Jol can call on Teemu Tainio, Jermaine Jenas, Danny Murphy, Andy Reid and returning loanees Wayne Routledge, Reto Ziegler and Tom Huddlestone.

With King on the treatment table, there is an opening in the heart of defence alongside Michael Dawson - another player in the ranks hopeful of impressing McClaren. Calum Davenport, so often appearing to be a misfit after signing from Coventry in a deal worth up to £3million two summers ago, caught the eye across the pre-season campaign and may well get the nod ahead of Anthony Gardner.

Who else will feature in front of England number one Paul Robinson remains uncertain, but the positive comments from Jol on Benoît Assou-Ekotto, another summer signing from RC Lens of Ligue 1, point to the Cameroon international taking Lee Young-Pyo's position at left-back. An exciting 22-year-old, Assou-Ekotto has shown great ability to get up and down the flank in support of the attack. He is also able to play on the left-wing, which is another option should Spurs stick with the South Korean defender.

The future of right-back Paul Stalteri remains in doubt. The Canadian has been fighting what appears to be a losing battle to win over the supporters and the clock is ticking. Jol continues to track Pascal Chimbonda following his stunning debut season at Wigan but Spurs are reluctant to meet the £6million asking price.

Despite Jol's undoubted success at transforming Spurs from a club destined to spend every season on the cusp of European qualification, there are many who question if he truly knows what his best team is. And with White Hart Lane appearing to have an ever revolving door for transfers that seems unlikely to change in the near future.

Perhaps currently one of the most popular managers in the Premiership right now, Jol rather fell into the role following the farcical tenure of Jacques Santini. After those three months of turnmoil and madness the charismatic Jol has brought respectability back to the Tottenham job. And his belief in young British talent when arch rivals Arsenal appear intent on filling their Academy with a league of nations only helps his standing with the fans.

However, Jol is under no illusions that the Spurs board expects success and sooner or later that will have to bring silverware rather than being nearly men. ENIC, owners of the club, have invested a great deal of money in the squad and there must be a tangible return.

UEFA Cup football is just the start and - considering their squad is far superior to Middlesbrough's which reached last season's final - Spurs will be expected to be strong contenders.

Although Spurs will once more target a place in the Champions League they may find the task more difficult as Arsenal will be expected to improve on last year's woeful performance. Either Spurs must improve markedly to challenge the big four, or they must rely on Arsenal, Chelsea or Manchester United to suffer an annus horribilis.

  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email Dale Johnson