The present is a complex proposition for Tottenham Hotspur. But maybe that's merely the price of progress.
Tottenham's push for a top-four finish took an unexpected turn Sunday in a disappointing 1-0 home loss to Fulham at White Hart Lane. Dimitar Berbatov scored the second-half winner in a swift counter-attack against his old team, and goalkeeper Mark Schwarzer made it stand up with a 90th-minute save from close range on Jermain Defoe.
Spurs remain well placed for Champions League qualification even in defeat, their second straight in the league, but considering recent history, the result can only send shivers down supporters' spines.
Just over a week ago, Tottenham held the trump card in the fight for the top four. Two points up on fourth-placed Chelsea, Spurs relished their 2-1 victory over rivals Arsenal, who lagged seven points behind.
Since then, Andre Villas-Boas' Spurs have lost three times, trudged through 120 minutes in Europe and seen their hard-earned league advantage all but disintegrate. After the heady days of the North London Derby and Gareth Bale's scorching winner against West Ham, the snapback has been correspondingly swift and harsh.
Last Sunday, Liverpool and Luis Suarez outdid their counterparts in a lively league fixture at Anfield. The 3-2 reverse ended Tottenham's domestic momentum, but if the result stung sharply, it wasn't entirely unexpected or even all that deflating.
On Thursday followed a 4-1 loss without Bale at Inter Milan in the Europa League, a scoreline that nonetheless saw Spurs progress to the quarterfinals on away goals. But if that 120-minute result wasn't overly damaging, it did cast doubt on Tottenham's credentials without their talismanic Welshman.
Now, though, with a third straight setback, the warning bells are clanging. A 1-0 loss, at home, to Fulham—who had won only twice on their previous travels this season—is all of the above. It was as unexpected as it was deflating. It damaged as much as it must have stung.
It was also revealing. While the loss at Inter prompted questions about Spurs without Bale, this one will cast doubt on their prospects with him.
As for the individual, Bale experienced ankle problems in the first half, but he remained in the match for the full 90 minutes anyway. As for the team, playing 120 minutes midweek will have taken a toll, but that's precisely the problem facing all big clubs challenging on multiple fronts.
In other words, as they aspire to greater things, this is the kind of challenge Spurs must learn to handle, one way or another, with or without Bale and whether or not fatigue is an issue. The best teams overcome hurdles, and in tough times they show their best.
AVB doesn't blame fatigue for Fulham loss, adding: "Desire & effort was there but things just didn't go our way...We have to bounce back"— Premier League (@premierleague) March 17, 2013
This, simply put, was a match Spurs should not have lost. Pushing for Champions League qualification, Spurs should have expected to gather three points at home—no matter how many minutes they played in Italy on Thursday night. With Arsenal already winning the day before, these three points were that much more valuable.
The bigger picture is more complicated than that, however. Even after their long unbeaten streak and Bale's impressive run of form, Tottenham have accomplished nothing as of yet. But they remain in contention, both for the top four and the Europa League, and despite all the recent defeats, Spurs still hold their own destiny in their hands.
This latest loss saw Chelsea take over third place with a match still in hand. Arsenal, too, have played one fewer match and now trail Spurs by only four points. Make no mistake: Dimitar Berbatov's counter-inspired winner did more than hurt his old team on the scoreboard. It also hinted at trouble for Tottenham's near-term ambitions.
Unlike a week ago, the future seems uncertain for Spurs. But as in all things, progress in football rarely comes without a misstep or two. For Tottenham and AVB, the future now becomes what they make of the present.