Desperate to avoid Champions League elimination at the group stage for the second time in three years, Tottenham face a do-or-die clash against PSV Eindhoven on Tuesday.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side are third in Group B after taking just one point from their first three matches.
Tottenham’s exit from Europe’s elite club competition would be confirmed if they lose to PSV at Wembley and second placed Inter Milan beat group leaders Barcelona.
Even a draw against PSV won’t be enough if Inter win.
That would be another wretched conclusion to a Champions League campaign that began with high hopes for Tottenham.
After failing to get past the group stage two seasons ago, Tottenham appeared to announce their arrival on the European stage with an impressive group victory over Real Madrid last term.
The north London club were eventually knocked out by Juventus in the last 16, but that narrow exit didn’t discourage the belief that Pochettino’s men were capable of making a sustained run to the latter stages this season.
However, defeats to Inter and Barcelona were the worst possible start for Tottenham, with a late PSV equaliser in a draw in Eindhoven leaving the Premier League side in even deeper trouble.
Tottenham’s European woes are surprising given they have made their best start to a Premier League season — sitting in fourth place after Saturday’s 3-2 win at Wolves.
That hard-fought victory underlined the pros and cons of Pochettino’s team at present.
They showcased their class in racing to a 3-0 lead thanks to goals from Erik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Harry Kane.
But they then got complacent in the closing stages and allowed Wolves to score two penalties that set up a nail-biting finale.
Critics claimed Tottenham’s narrow escape proved they remain a soft touch, echoing the recent jibe from former Manchester United star Gary Neville, who said Spurs have been “spineless” for 30 years.
Inevitably, Pochettino took the opposite view, insisting that Tottenham’s ability to hold onto their narrow lead in the closing stages at Wolves showed they are tougher than outsiders believe.
– Good culture –
“I am so happy right from the beginning. Since I arrived here we created a very good culture about fight and altogether the belief,” Pochettino said.
“It was difficult to create that but I am so happy. It is a team that is always going to give the faith in each game. We can win or we can lose but we are so intense and today the effort was fantastic.
“We came from Manchester City when we ran more than 120km and West Ham was similar and this was the same.
“That showed the team has a very strong character.” Tottenham will need more of that fighting spirit to reach the Champions League knockout stages, with matches against Barcelona and Inter Milan remaining after the PSV clash.
It would help their cause if Dele Alli is fit to start after Pochettino rested the England midfielder against Wolves.
Alli has been bothered by a hamstring problem in recent weeks but, with Tottenham’s midfield hit by injuries, he is likely to face PSV.
Mousa Dembele limped off in the first half against Wolves with an ankle injury, while Eric Dier missed the match due to a thigh problem and Victor Wanyama has a long-term knee issue.
Having signed a new long-term contract last week, Tottenham have put their faith in Alli and will be looking for him to repay that belief in the kind of high-stakes encounter he needs to dominate more often.
“We all want to achieve something great. As young players as well, we want to keep improving and this is a great place to do that,” Alli said after agreeing his bumper pay rise.
But, despite his vast talent, Alli has often flattered to deceive in Tottenham’s biggest games, with more anonymous displays than memorable ones.