That harsh but incontrovertible truth hung over Mauricio Pochettino’s side on this, their final night of the season at European football’s top table. It will not really miss them. They have been awkward party guests, conscious that they do not really belong, and a sparsely-populated Wembley spoke to that. The crowd was muted, their applause always brief.
After all, a dead rubber is one thing, but a dead rubber at a ‘home’ that you cannot call your own is a uniquely alienating experience. Whether or not Wembley can be blamed for Tottenham's elimination at the group stage, it’s hard not to conclude that the switch away from White Hart Lane had an effect. It’s worth noting that if those debilitating defeats against Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen here had been draws, they would have started this game with qualification in their own hands.
Instead, here they were, battling it out for a booby prize against a team that were, from first minute to the last, clearly their inferiors. CSKA Moscow could not even provide a full complement of substitutes and, judging by the starting line-up’s performance in the opening half hour alone, they needed as many they could get. The same loose interpretation of basic defensive play shown by Leonid Slutsky’s Russia at the summer’s European Championships was on display from his club side.
A technically-superior Tottenham tore them apart in those early exchanges but, just as in Marseille last June, a Slutsky's side preyed on their opponents’ mental frailty. Bibras Nacho’s lofted ball up field should have been easily dealt with, especially by a defender of Jan Vertonghen’s standing, but a moment’s indecision cost the Belgian dear. When Alan Dzagoev subsequently slotted past Hugo Lloris, another Wembley defeat felt somewhat likely.
In the end, it did not come. The quality of Pochettino’s men shone through, and after Dele Alli’s equaliser, they finally began to look comfortable playing in this competition. The more optimistic members of their support might see this as evidence that they can excel at this level, that qualification and progression is possible next year. Yet the fact that their only two wins came against such poor opponents says a lot.
Tottenham remain a ‘nearly’ team. One that is almost there, comprised of players that are promising but not-quite-yet good enough. The type of side that finishes third in a testing but tolerable Champions League group.
What they need is a trophy. That single, first season run to the League Cup final aside, Pochettino has shown a certain indifference to the cup competitions that are within his reach. Qualification for this tournament has always taken precedence, yet they are danger of emulating another team from north London if they see that as an achievement in itself.
Now, following this routine victory against opponents that are most definitely out-of-place among the continent’s elite, they enter a competition more befitting their talented, exciting but relatively unproven team; one where progression to the latter rounds should be a minimum expectation; one where there will not be so many easy excuses for an early exit.
Tottenham may still be playing at Wembley when they return to European competition in February, but at least the Europa League will feel more like home.
Original source: Spurs back where they belong - the Europa League