Tottenham Hotspur's European challenge is finished for the season, washed away in a rainy penalty shootout in Switzerland. The exit will sting, especially considering the way Spurs came from behind in the final minutes of regular time. But with Basel behind them, Andre Villas-Boas' men can now turn their attention to another continental quest that could have farther-reaching implications for the club.
With six matches left in the English Premier League season, Spurs are locked in a battle with Chelsea, Arsenal and perhaps Everton for the division's final two Champions League qualification spots. No matter what happened in Basel on Thursday night, the fight for the top four was still going to be Tottenham's most important concern.
What happened Thursday will hurt, of course. Clint Dempsey scored twice, including an equalizer minutes before full time, as Spurs drew 2-2 after extra time at Basel in the second leg of their UEFA Europa League quarterfinal. Coupled with last week's 2-2 draw in London, the result sent the game to penalties, where Basel won easily, 4-1.
But there were positives to take, even in defeat, starting with Dempsey's double. Playing without injured star Gareth Bale, Tottenham grabbed a first-half lead and matched Basel's potent attack. And the defense even held firm for all 30 minutes of extra time following Jan Vertonghen's 90th-minute dismissal.
“This Basel team was probably the best team I have ever seen at White Hart Lane,” Villas-Boas had said after last week's home leg (via The Independent). “They are a good team who play great football and were well organized. All the recognition to a top opponent we had to play here tonight.”
Basel, the defending Swiss champs, lived up to AVB's gracious billing once again. Spurs struggled to contain Basel's attacking trio of Marco Streller, Mohamed Salah and Valentin Stocker, with captain Streller especially giving the visitors fits.
The big Swiss international excelled in the middle atop the formation, harrying Tottenham's midfield and defenders, holding up play, accepting passes and setting up the first goal. Salah provided energy and endless running as well as the finish for the first goal. Stocker created width and supplied the corner from which the hosts scored the winner.
Spurs, meanwhile, entered the match having not won away from home in Europa League this season. Considering how well Basel played last week, this would have been an unlikely place to start.
But it was Tottenham who took a 23rd-minute lead, thanks to a bit of good fortune. Vertonghen's pass into the Basel defense seemed destined for interception by Aleksander Dragovic, but the Austrian's attempted sliding clearance failed. Suddenly, Dempsey had an opening, and the American finished coolly after rounding keeper Yann Sommer.
It was Dempsey's first since goal since Jan. 27, a span of nine games, and it surely helped both player and club gain some much-needed confidence. But the lead didn't last long.
Three minutes later, Spurs gifted Basel a goal of their own, as Dembele's careless pass was intercepted in the midfield. The ball reached Salah, who made up for a heavy first touch by poking past Brad Friedel at the near post for the equalizer.
The hosts took the lead less than four minutes after the break. Stocker curled a corner to the near post and Friedel pushed away Fabian Schär's header, but the rebound fell to Dragovic, who made no mistake from short distance.
The score remained 2-1, and Tottenham appeared destined for defeat until Dempsey volleyed home his second after chesting down a long pass in the 83rd minute.
The match took a dramatic turn in the 90th minute, when Vertonghen saw red for a last-man foul on Streller. That meant Spurs were reduced to 10 men for all of extra time with all three substitutions already made.
In extra time, Basel's Mohamed El-Nenny hit the post with a thumping 30-yard drive and Michael Dawson made a heroic block as Spurs held on. In the shootout, Tom Huddlestone saw his shot saved, and Adebayor blazed one over the bar. Schär, Streller, Alexander Frei and Marcelo Diaz converted for Basel, who did not miss a kick.
The win sent Basel into their first Europa League semifinal, and despite Tottenham's stubborn resistance, the Swiss champs deserved to go through.
Tottenham, on the other hand, will feel the pain of their exit acutely, but will now turn their focus fully toward finishing in the Premier League's top four. It could become a critical quest indeed.
Bale's absence wasn't deadly this time, but without Champions League football next season, there's no guarantee he won't be gone for good. Qualification for the Champions League would likely mean he sticks around, at least for another season.
And with so much potentially at stake, qualification for another European campaign—this one much more prestigious and more lucrative—could turn Thursday night's dramatic defeat into a blessing later on.