This season Tottenham Hotspur have lost more leads than a bungling detective but if they defeat Manchester City at White Hart Lane on Sunday they could still solve the Case of the Elusive Champions League Spot. Fail to do so and Spurs will be unlikely to crack it, unless their main rivals – Arsenal, Chelsea and Everton – go off the scent too, which, of course, should not be ruled out in this most curious of pursuits.
Just over a month ago, when a 2-1 victory over Arsenal put them comfortably in third place, seven points clear of their north London neighbours, Tottenham seemed well on track to reclaim the Champions League place they were so agonisingly denied last season when Chelsea gazumped them. But André Villas-Boas's team have picked up just four points from the last 12 available and are playing catch-up again. Some fans fret that the club is in the midst of the sort of late-season decline that afflicted them last term, but the dips have been spread more evenly throughout this see-saw season.
Spurs have lost 21 points from winning positions this season, more than any side in the Premier League other than Reading, Aston Villa and Southampton. The midfielder Gylfi Sigurdsson believes the most costly slip-ups were the late goals conceded early in the campaign that led to home draws with West Bromwich Albion and Norwich and defeats against Newcastle and Wigan, which were followed by a late reverse at the Etihad against Sunday's opponents. "We were not good enough at the beginning of the season," Sigurdsson said. "We dropped too many points late in games."
At least that was understandable. After all, following the departures of influential players such as Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart and Ledley King, Spurs had to integrate a raft of new players this year, including Sigurdsson, and all under a new manager. "It took a bit of time for everything to fall into place," explains Sigurdsson, who identifies the 3-2 win at West Ham in February – when Spurs rather than their opponents staged a late comeback – as the most formative so far for this new team. "I think it was one of those games where you start to realise you've got something special," he says. "It's a tough place to go to, as you saw with Manchester United drawing there this week, so to come from behind and win was very important for us."
Spurs beat Arsenal the following weekend. And then their latest stutter began so, lo and behold, they find themselves needing to come from behind again, having fallen to fifth place. A couple of personnel comebacks could certainly help them today: Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe are expected to return from injury, and Aaron Lennon may do so too. They are three crucial players for Spurs. And if Sergio Agüero and David Silva fail to regain fitness in time for City, then Tottenham will fancy their chances even more of being on the right side of the latest turnaround in their season.