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May 16, 2009

The race for the poisoned chalice

The increasingly uninspiring race to finish seventh in the Premier League reached 'boiling point' on the penultimate weekend of the season at White Hart Lane.

Long gone are the days when English clubs chased the dream of European football with relish as the prospect of dipping your toe in UEFA's refurbished Europa League hardly sets the pulse racing.

With qualifying rounds for the second string European club competition starting in late July and more than 20 games to negotiate in some of the less desirable locations on the continent en-route to a possible final, Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp has been among those questioning whether he wants to be involved in the competition.

Manchester City boss Mark Hughes may have had a slightly different view prior to this game as he would like to have put something on the table in a bid to win favour with his Arab bosses who expected so much more from their first season in English football, yet you suspect some of his City players would not relish a trip to Azerbaijan or Belarus in a few weeks' times.

The fact that many Europa League fixtures are slotted into the calendar on Thursday evenings generally ensures competitors struggle in Premier League matches the following Sunday, so it may have been with something of a heavy heart that Redknapp toasted a win in his final home game of the season.

Goals from Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane earned Spurs a victory that came thanks to a controversial late penalty as they again showed glimpses of what may be possible when the new season gives Redknapp a chance to get his teeth into this job in earnest.

City's defeat left them to contemplate a season of mid-table obscurity. While it could have been so much better if their efforts on the road had yielded more than a mere two victories this term, the reality may be that Hughes will be deemed a failure by many observers.

Redknapp's efforts will be portrayed in a very different light as a challenge for a place in Europe could not have been further from the thoughts of the veteran Londoner when he left Portsmouth for Tottenham in one of the more dramatic stories of this memorable season.

When he took on the Tottenham job in late October, Redknapp's chief target was ensuring a side in the depths of a relegation battle got out of the hole they found themselves in. So whatever happens in the final week of the season, the last six months have already been a triumph for the Spurs boss and this performance showed the potential he has at his disposal for next season.

Defoe's opener in this game may be a pointer to next season for Tottenham. The little striker has been denied the chance to shine since he re-signed for the club in January, but he showed a glimpse of what he will offer next season with a classy finish to delight his army of fans after 28 minutes. His back healed finish was classy.

It wasn't hard for City to show signs of improvement after the break as, to be honest, they looked like a side who already had the beach towels out as they limped through the opening 45 minutes. Their efforts were rewarded with an equaliser from Valeri Bojinov after 65 minutes, with a cool volley giving him his first City goal after two years of injury plagued residence in Manchester.

Tottenham pushed for the winner late on and needed the intervention of referee Mark Halsey to seal the victory, with his controversial decision to award a penalty after substitute Frazier Campbell was challenged by Micah Richards in the box seeming a little harsh. Robbie Keane kept a cool head to beat compatriot Shay Given from the spot five minutes from time.

"I thought it was a nailed on penalty," said a delighted Redknapp. "The lad has climbed all over our player in the box and the decision gave us a chance to wrap up a victory in a game in which we lost our direction a little. We never got started in the second half after playing so well before the break, so it was good to win the final game of the season."

Hughes naturally had a differing view on the penalty, but the main focus of his frustration was at the constant rumours of his planned exit from City. "People have to start believing I am going to be manager of this football club at the start of next season," said the irate former Blackburn manager.

"I spoke with the owners again this week and we are planning for next season. They are as annoyed as I am about all the rumours surrounding me, but I can assure everyone that my position at City is secure. Everyone needs to try and get their heads around the facts of this situation."

So City are out of the race for European football one game before the end of the season and Tottenham's unlikely assault on the 'top seven' will go to the final weekend, when they face a difficult away game against Liverpool.

Redknapp's squad may be better equipped than rivals Fulham to cope with the additional workload of the Europa League as they have the finances to bolster their already impressive pool of talent this summer, but the reality may be that they may be better off without the extra burden.

• MAN OF THE MATCH: Tom Huddlestone - The creator of the first Tottenham goal has all the potential to become a top class Premier League performer if Redknapp has shave off the rough edges to his game.

• COMEDY MOMENT: Jermain Defoe was guilty of clattering into the assistant referee on the stroke of half-time and replays confirmed he thrust out a nasty little kick at the hapless official. The flag waver was forced to receive treatment for his injury.

• FACE IN THE CROWD: Oasis front man Liam Gallagher was a little too feisty as he celebrated City's equaliser and he upset a Tottenham fan in an adjacent executive box. He is such a charmer.

• TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Tottenham will be challenging for a top five finish next season if Redknapp makes the right signings this summer. They may well emerge as contenders to snatch fourth spot if Arsenal continue to slip.

• CITY VERDICT: Their inability to perform away from home is a problem Hughes must resolve if he is given the chance. He seems convinced he will be City manager next season, but many in the press box at White Hart Lane refused to believe him.

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