Tottenham's fall from grace highlighted by Europa Conference League obscurity

Champions League finalists in 2019, Nuno's side now find themselves in the inaugural Europa Conference League play-off round

Tottenham Hotspur railed valiantly against the perception they are in decline on Sunday. They rallied to beat Manchester City. They resisted the club who would like to raid them for Harry Kane.

And yet there will be evidence on Thursday of how the mighty have fallen; how far and how fast, too. City were Champions League finalists this year. Tottenham held that status in 2019. Now they are inaugural members of the Europa Conference League. The first English club to lift a European trophy, when they beat Atletico Madrid in the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1963, could become the maiden champions of a competition none truly wanted to enter.

A distant scenario offers some spice. Jose Mourinho, the double Champions League winner who was hired to take Tottenham into the tournament that used to be his playground, is instead in the Conference League with his new employers, Roma. But the play-off round is populated by the sort of minnows Spurs rarely encounter; they might struggle to place clubs such as Fola Esch, Kairat, Flora and KuPS on a map. For the record, they are representing Luxembourg, Kazakhstan, Estonia and Finland respectively.

Spurs’ hosts are not as obscure; certainly not to their Portuguese manager. When Nuno Espirito Santo began his managerial career with Rio Ave, Pacos de Ferreira finished third. Promoted in 2019, Pacos came fifth last season; it was one of the best in their history, but they then lost their manager, Pepa. Their European adventures are brief: they held Fiorentina at home in 2013 but lost in Northern Ireland last month to Larne, a club from a town with just 18,000 inhabitants, before overturning that 1-0 deficit at home.

But, for a club who tried to join the European elite, the Super League it is not. Nor, it should be said, was Tottenham’s last taste of continental competition, when they lost 3-0 to Dinamo Zagreb, whose manager Zoran Mamic had received a jail sentence. It prompted comments that the team whose manager was in prison were better coached than that led by Mourinho.

Now Tottenham’s aim will be averting fresh embarrassment. Nuno’s decisions will be scrutinised for non-footballing reasons. Kane has not travelled, after he was named in the squad Spurs registered with Uefa, though that will not render him cup-tied for other European competitions. Tanguy Ndombele and Serge Aurier were given clear indications that they do not form part of Nuno’s plans when they were omitted.

Nuno relied on a core of regulars when he steered Wolves on a marathon run to the Europa League quarter-finals two years ago. Tottenham possess more players, which affords more opportunities to rotate at the start of a European run which could encompass 15 games.

Spurs 1 Man City 0: player ratings

One of Spurs’ summer signings, centre-back Cristian Romero, made a brief debut in the closing stages against City. The others, winger Bryan Gil and goalkeeper Pierluigi Gollini, could be given their bows.

Matt Doherty and Harry Winks, two who featured prominently in pre-season but who were benched against City, might come in but as Nuno alighted on most of his preferred players quickly and others returned later after summer international duty, there are some established figures who could benefit from the chance to impress the new manager.

Meanwhile, as Kane is the sole specialist senior striker on the books could mean the 17-year-old Dane Scarlett deputises for Son Heung-min in attack.

The priority for Nuno will be a different type of reunion, when he revisits Wolves on Sunday. It may represent a more glamorous destination than Tirana, where the Conference League final will be played. The winner will qualify for next season’s Europa League. Even that, however, would merely remind Tottenham of what they have lost.

Updated: August 19th 2021, 3:58 AM