Tottenham need a trophy? They need Pochettino more…

Dave Tickner

Tottenham’s season could be defined by two matches against Chelsea.

The first is at Stamford Bridge on Sunday. The second is an as-yet-theoretical FA Cup final at Wembley on May 19.

Which of these two matches is more crucial? Yes, it’s that old chestnut: is the top four more important than a trophy?

No, wait, come back. The Top Four Trophy may be Everything Wrong With Modern Football, but Tottenham arrive at this particular hypothetical fork in the footballing road at a uniquely significant time.

Tottenham have been a byword for underachievement almost throughout the Premier League era. Fergie’s pitch-perfect three-word summary – “Lads, it’s Tottenham” – has entered legend. And the word ‘Spursy’ doesn’t exist without good reason.

But Spursy now means ‘losing narrowly to Juventus in the knock-out stages of the Champions League’ rather than ‘signing Andy Booth and Paul Konchesky on loan’. Or ‘sacking a manager at half-time’. Or ‘Gary Doherty starts up front’.

Tottenham’s over-achievement under Mauricio Pochettino is significant. Having last finished in the top three in the mid-1980s, they’ve now done so two years running and could well make it three. You might not get a parade for such achievements, but they matter.

And so we come to this weekend. Victory over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge for the first time since David Howells and Gary Lineker earned a 2-1 win in February 1990 would give Spurs an eight-point cushion over fifth place with seven games remaining.

Lose – and history suggests that’s rather more likely – and that gap is down to two with champions-elect (and possibly by then champions) Manchester City heading to Wembley two weeks later. Lose to Chelsea on Sunday, and Spurs may well be outside the top four when they take on Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final.

It’s not exactly make or break, but Sunday looks like the pivotal game in the bid for a third consecutive Champions League campaign. None of Spurs’ other remaining games are against a direct rival.

In truth, Tottenham’s football this season – domestically at least – has rarely hit the heights of last, but another top-four finish in a season spent away from White Hart Lane would represent continued progress.

And yet. Another season without silverware will give fuel to the doubters and naysayers. “He needs to win a trophy,” is becoming an albatross around Pochettino’s neck, as if Espanyol, Southampton and Tottenham had shelves groaning with baubles before the Argentinian came along.

For the fans, it would be entirely understandable to see an FA Cup win as the more important measure of progress, as tangible reward for the most exciting and talented Tottenham team of the last 30 years. For Pochettino, it would mean not having to face the same question every week.

But is it more important for the club? Pochettino’s obvious disdain for the domestic cups may grate but it does not mean he’s wrong. Take a step back and it’s easy to see why a man who’s revolutionised the entire ethos of a football club might get a little spiky when people complain he has not picked up a Carabao Cup along the way.

Spurs fans under the age of, what, 40 have never had it so good. A trophy would be a nice cherry on top, but the cake is still pretty tasty without.

This year’s FA Cup run has summed up Pochettino’s attitude. Spurs are in the semi-finals almost by accident. The draw could hardly have been kinder and even then it has taken replays to see off Newport and Rochdale. When Spurs finally faced top-flight opposition in the last eight, Swansea kindly decided not to take part.

Even allowing for the fact that Spurs must now beat Manchester United and probably Chelsea to lift the cup, it’s easy to see why Pochettino believes a 38-game league season is where progress should be judged.

For the continued development of the club, bringing Champions League football to the new stadium – with his increased capacity and increased ticket prices – is far more important than being able to walk around its perimeter with a nice, shiny trophy

Of course, achieve both and all the criticism is silenced; Pochettino will have delivered the club’s most successful season since 1984. But given an either/or choice, there is no doubt which prize he would pick.

Winning the FA Cup but finishing fifth would not be a satisfactory season for him. And what worries Pochettino is what should worry Spurs fans.

It’s not always the case that the manager is the most important individual at a club – Chelsea being the perfect example – but it’s certainly true right now at Tottenham. Pochettino has built this team. He has been crucial in bringing certain players to the club, and even more integral in keeping such an exciting squad together.

History suggests that interlopers like Tottenham can only intrude on the biggest clubs’ turf for so long before being picked off. That Spurs are doing so for a third consecutive season is every bit as much down to Pochettino’s guile as Harry Kane’s goals.

If Pochettino were to leave – his former club PSG are likely to need another new manager soon and he’ll definitely win trophies there – who could Spurs hope to lure as his replacement? If Pochettino were to leave, how many of the players would start looking even closer at the greater riches on offer elsewhere?

Pochettino has dragged Tottenham into the true Premier League elite without the benefit of historical strength or billionaire investment. It’s a staggering achievement at a club that could just as easily be another Everton, Aston Villa or Newcastle.

But it could all end just as quickly. Another season in the Champions League is far more likely to prolong Spurs’ gatecrashing of the billionaires’ party than an FA Cup win. And even more importantly, it is far more likely to prolong Pochettino’s stay in north London.

Right now, at a club that is playing the long game, that’s the most significant prize.

Dave Tickner