For Tottenham, the dream remains alive. Never mind the scorn, they are still on course to force their way into a startup European club competition next season. OK, not that one. Rather – cue the jazz hands – the Uefa Europa Conference League.
Giovani Lo Celso knows it is a possibility. If Spurs finish seventh in the Premier League, it would – in all likelihood – be sufficient to see them qualify for the new tournament, which has snuck under the radar somewhat and not only because of the steaming distraction that was the European Super League. And, even, the plan for the expanded Champions League in 2024.
English fans do not seem to have processed that the Europa Conference is happening and what it will entail for the Premier League’s representative. It is essentially a third-tier competition – behind the Champions League and Europa League – to be played mainly between Uefa’s lower-ranked countries on Thursday nights. There will be one team from England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France, and two or three from the rest, all the way down to countries such as Andorra and San Marino.
The English club will enter at the two-leg play-off round – scheduled for 19 and 26 August – and the next phase features eight four-team groups with home and away ties. Then it is on to the knockouts, beginning with the last 16, although the group runners-up will first contest a two-leg preliminary round, with drop-downs from the Europa League. The winner of the final – to be held in the Albanian capital, Tirana – will be granted a place in the following season’s Europa League group stage.
Sound good? Not really for Spurs and it would certainly be quite the climbdown for a club that reached the Champions League final in June 2019 and, until this season, had been in four straight editions of Europe’s elite tournament.
“We know that other windows can open up for us in terms of European competition,” Lo Celso says, when considering the implications of missing out on a top-four finish. “But obviously the main aim is to get into the Champions League.”
The Argentina midfielder could not be clearer on that, together with how his club will fight until the last to make it, however much of an uphill struggle that may be after so many frustrations since they topped the table in the first half of December. Spurs entertain Sheffield United on Sunday night in the first of what Lo Celso calls “five finals, must-win games” before the end of the season.
“We all know as players and as a club that the main aim of Spurs is to get into the Champions League,” Lo Celso says. “While we still have a chance of that, we will be fighting. These last five games … it’s almost like an apprenticeship. It’s a process of trying to get through them. We’ll learn from them and it will stand us in good stead for the future.”
Lo Celso, who joined Spurs from Real Betis in the summer of 2019, initially on loan, has endured a tough season, scarred by a three-month hamstring injury lay-off from 20 December. He cites the last-gasp 2-1 defeat at Liverpool on 16 December as a “key turning point” while he says that the 3-0 Europa League last-16 defeat at Dinamo Zagreb on 18 March left its mark. Spurs had been 2-0 up from the first leg.
“That was my first game back after my injury,” Lo Celso says. “Losing the way we did hurt everyone a lot, it was a big, big disappointment. It is true to say that it did affect us.”
Upheaval and woe have been the themes of the recent past, taking in José Mourinho’s sacking on the Monday before last and the Carabao Cup final loss to Manchester City last Sunday. “We were very, very down in the dressing room after the final, it was a feeling of great sadness,” Lo Celso says. “We were disappointed that we couldn’t bring a trophy home for the supporters. That was our big desire.”
Lo Celso is at a loss to explain how Spurs have imploded but he wants to stress something else. “What I can assure you is that the group as a whole have given our very best at all times,” he says. “You can’t ask for more than that. Mourinho tried to put over his ideas to the team in the best way he could, he did his best for the club and we did our best in trying to do what he asked of us. Unfortunately the results did not turn out in certain games and it ended up how it did.”
Where Spurs now end up remains heavy on jeopardy.