Tottenham Hotspur: 10 Must-Win Matches for Spurs in 2011-2012
It's been 97 days since Tottenham last competed in a Champions League match. Yes, I'm keeping count. Champions League is like a drug. Once a team competes, the club, the players and the fans all want more.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, they will not be getting more during the next year, after failing to secure a top four spot in the Premier League and leaving us all in painful withdrawals for a length of time that nobody can predict with any level of certainty.
The club insists, however, that it will not be for long, as it intends to retain its best players and make another run for the greatest honor in European football. But first, they must earn their place once again in the top four of the EPL table.
To achieve this difficult task, the Spurs have a very difficult road ahead of them, and they certainly cannot repeat the mistakes that they made last season. And those mistakes were many.
The Spurs disappointed fans in a lot of ways last season, such as dropping essential points to teams that should have posed no threat whatsoever to a club that fancies themselves one of the best in English football. That cannot be the case again.
In truth, every match on the upcoming schedule is a must-win, and should be treated as such. Still, there are certain matches that absolutely cannot be dropped this time around.
Here are ten matches that are absolutely must-win games for Tottenham if they truly intend to play Champions League football once again.
28 August: Manchester City at Spurs
The first big test for the Spurs will come at the end of August at White Hart Lane. The opponent: Manchester City.
Tottenham found themselves in a heated race against City at the end of the last campaign, before ultimately falling nine points back and out of the top four. One of the biggest differences between a fourth place finish in 2009-10 and fifth place in the following year was their inability to win one of two Premier League matches against the increasingly competitive Manchester side.
That cannot be the case this time around.
In their third match of 2011-12, the Spurs will have an opportunity to send City a message at home: "we will not finish fifth again." And they'll have to do it by taking three points against the club that could be their biggest competitor for a spot in the top four.
Some have speculated that Manchester City could make a legitimate run at the title this time around, and that could very well be the case. But given their proximity in the table over the past couple of seasons, it is absolutely essential that Spurs win at least the home leg of their coming battle with Manchester City.
10 September: Spurs at Wolverhampton
Last season, the Wolverhampton Wanderers established themselves as the Premier League giant-killers, surprising us all by defeating both Chelsea and Manchester United on their home turf. While the Wolves didn't exactly maintain such an impressive record against their lower-table opponents, they were still a very tough squad to beat at home.
The Spurs did not suffer such an embarrassing blow in Wolverhampton, but they still failed to take home three points on the road against the club that was (at that point) sitting at the very bottom of the table.
Don't expect the Wolves to repeat last season's impressive upset record, but they will still be the first major test for the Spurs outside of White Hart Lane.
When a club scores three goals against the worst squad in the league, they are typically expected to win the match. Last season, the Spurs failed in that respect, giving up two points that should have been their easiest of the campaign. Failing to do so this time around is not an option if the Spurs truly intend to prove themselves worthy of Champions League football once again.
2 October: Arsenal at Spurs
This one should go without saying: the Spurs have got to beat Arsenal at home.
With the home crowd behind them and louder than ever, this year's home leg of the North London derby will be crucial. Not so much for their position on the table (although it will benefit them immensely), but just because of how much the fans want and crave that victory against the Gunners at White Hart Lane.
Arsenal already have a lot of questions in their lineup to answer this transfer season, and many have speculated that it will result in a weaker Gunners squad than last time around. That's good news for the Spurs, who only dropped two points against them in one victory at Emirates Stadium and a draw at home.
This season, they can't settle for that draw. They know that they can bring Arsenal to their knees when emotions are high, and that's exactly what they'll have to do at the Lane.
6 November: Spurs at Fulham
Fulham F.C. are feeling pretty confident in their ability to handle the Spurs after their last meeting at Craven Cottage, crushing Tottenham 4-0 in the FA Cup at the end of January. The Spurs are going to have to bounce back when they return in November, and show Fulham that the meeting was a fluke.
Their last meeting came in the middle of a very crowded schedule for Tottenham, with five matches in a little over two weeks from three competitions. The Spurs undoubtedly had their minds set on making it out of the Cottage fully intact for a Champions League showdown with AC Milan at the end of the busiest stretch of their year.
With no Champions League football on the horizon to worry about this time around, the Spurs can't take this meeting so lightly.
To their credit, the Spurs did take all six points available from Fulham in league play before the embarrassing tournament defeat. Repeating that feat could prove extremely helpful in the final count for 2011-12.
20 December: Chelsea at Spurs
If you're a Spurs fan, chances are you're still seething over the last meeting with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.
Despite the fact that only one legitimate goal was scored in 90 minutes between the two clubs, and it looked very much to be scored by Sandro who we're all quite certain was wearing a Spurs uniform at the time, the official score at the end somehow read "2-1" in favor of Chelsea. Weird.
It was very unfortunate to drop key points under such circumstances on the road, but the Spurs will have a shot at reclaiming them in December when the Blues come to North London in December.
If Tottenham can play as well as they did last time around, three points against Chelsea cannot be ruled out at White Hart Lane. The Spurs saw a lot of draws against England's top sides last season. It will be tough, but some of those draws and heartbreaking losses have got to go in the win column if they truly want to reclaim a spot in the top four.
02 January: West Bromwich Albion at Spurs
Despite an embarrassing blooper during their preseason tour in America against MLS squad San Jose, West Brom have proven that they can be a force to be reckoned with in English football.
Still, for a top-five team like Tottenham, West Brom shouldn't be too much trouble.
Unfortunately for the Spurs, the last time they saw West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane was in the middle of a 13-match slump, during which the Spurs only won a single game in all competitions. The result was a heartbreaking draw at home in a match that should have been an easy three points.
"Should have been" was certainly a common theme in the Spurs' 2010-11 campaign, and it can't be nearly as much this time around.
Tottenham's first match of 2012 will be another big test to see if they've truly improved on the issues they faced last season. When they face West Brom in North London in January, the Spurs can't take them for granted. The days of dropping easy points at home have got to be left behind. Three home points against West Brom will be a key addition to their final tally at the end of the season.
White Hart Lane has to be a fortress once again.
31 January: Wigan Athletic at Spurs
It's tough to land Champions League football when you drop key points at home against one the league's most underachieving squads, but that's exactly what the Spurs did in last year's home leg against Wigan Athletic in August.
OK, so maybe they were still trying to get into a rhythm when they last saw Wigan at White Hart Lane. And it didn't help that three days before the match, the Spurs were forced to throw everything into the pot against BSC Young Boys to qualify for the Champions League group stage. But still. Wigan? At home?
Those excuses will no longer be valid this season, when they face Wigan at the end of January with no Champions League to speak of. Falling to Wigan again at the Lane will be unacceptable, and a truly telling indicator of their readiness for Europe's top tournament.
If they want fourth place or better, they have to beat Wigan. Period. There's really no lighter way of putting it.
4 February: Spurs at Liverpool
One of the best things Tottenham had going for themselves last season was the fact that they took all six points from Liverpool squad that matured in so many ways throughout the campaign.
The first victory was at White Hart Lane, when Liverpool was struggling to find some level of cohesion and still undergoing a dramatic transfer of ownership that left the club facing a lot of questions. However, Liverpool was one of the most dangerous squads to face in the second half of the season, when the Spurs visited Anfield and still managed to secure a victory.
Liverpool's form at the end of the last season has left many of their fans feeling very optimistic about their prospects in 2011-12, and some have wondered if a top-four finish could come sooner rather than later. In any case, Liverpool will be dangerous again, and probably not for just a fraction of the campaign.
When the Spurs visit Anfield again, they'll have to do exactly what they did at the end of last season: win. It doesn't matter how strong Liverpool is this time around. Those points were huge last season, and they'll need to be part of the Spurs' final tally once again.
25 February: Spurs at Arsenal
OK, maybe it's a little greedy to suggest that both legs of the North London Derby are "must-win" matches for the Spurs. Still, any devoted Spurs fan will tell you that both are absolutely must-win any season. And that sentiment exists entirely apart from the final spot in the standings.
Emirates Stadium is hardly a welcoming venue for Tottenham, but the Spurs are more than capable of feeding off of the opposing fans to secure a major victory, as well as season-long bragging rights. Last season's meeting at the rival park resulted in one of the most exciting victories of the season, as Tottenham overcame a 2-0 first half-deficit with three second-half goals that left Gunners fans fuming.
It may be wishful thinking to expect a full six points from Arsenal this season, but as I mentioned before, the Gunners could be fielding one of their weakest sides in years if the bleak outlook they've faced this transfer season continues for much longer.
Even if it's just for the fans who brave the hostility to see the Spurs overcome their rivals in the harshest of Premier League environments, Tottenham absolutely must win at Arsenal this year.
21 April: Spurs at QPR
The worst thing that the Spurs can do this season is allow themselves to make the same mistakes as they did during their failed run at a repeat of the success they earned in 2009-10. That means no more questionable outings against lower-table clubs.
The away leg of their battle with QPR could be the most difficult test they will face in showing that they won't give up unnecessary points against teams that they should obviously outplay under ideal conditions.
Right now, the Queens Park Rangers seem poised to enter the coming campaign as the strongest of the three newly-promoted clubs in the Premier League. Still, one would hope that a victory at home against the newcomers would be a given (thought it's very much not). It's the road match that the Spurs have to be wary of.
QPR will be looking to establish their home field as a fortress to meet expectations of staying out of the relegation zone. Chances are, they'll be playing for a draw when the top clubs come to visit.
The Spurs can't settle for that like they did so many times against lesser rivals last year. QPR will be strong, but they shouldn't be too much trouble.
In any case, a victory on the road against last year's League Championship titleholders will be essential.