André Villas-Boas believes it is "science fiction" that the demands of the Europa League have a negative bearing on Premier League form and fitness but, after a traumatic week at Tottenham Hotspur, it is unclear whether all of his players agree.
"We just never got going," said Gylfi Sigurdsson after the club's 1-0 home defeat by Fulham on Sunday. "It was almost as if everyone was a bit down and there wasn't enough energy or movement. There was just something missing from our game."
The defeat had come after Thursday's Europa League tie in Milan, when the team had needed extra-time and the away-goals rule to squeeze past Internazionale and set up a quarter-final against Basel. The 4-1 defeat at San Siro was mentally and physically sapping. "I don't want to be making excuses but the 120 minutes from Thursday night probably played a bit of a part [against Fulham], and also the travelling, but we could have played better even if we were tired," Sigurdsson said. "It could have been a factor but we have to make sure we are fresh and ready for the next game."
Villas-Boas started with five players against Fulham who had been the distance in Milan and substituted Sigurdsson and Mousa Dembélé, both of whom played 120 minutes at San Siro, midway through the second half. He maintained after the game that the Milan tie had not contributed to the flat and uninspiring performance. "We had fresh legs on the pitch as you could see," Villas-Boas said. "We rotated the squad." But whether Villas-Boas likes it or not, the impression has taken root. If Tottenham do not finish in the top four and miss out on Champions League qualification, it will be seen, in some measure, as being down to the Europa League. Chelsea, who are also into the Europa League quarter-finals, where they face Rubin Kazan, might feel the same thing, although their schedule is even more intense due to their ongoing involvement in the FA Cup; they play Manchester United in the quarter-final replay at Stamford Bridge on 1 April, three days before the first leg of their Kazan tie.
Chelsea have played 53 games this season – the number will swell to 70 if they go all the way in both cup competitions – while Tottenham have played 44 and could go as high as 57. Arsenal, the third London club chasing a top-four finish, have also played 44 times but their season, after elimination from the Champions League and FA Cup, has distilled into nine league fixtures.
Their victory at Swansea City on Saturday, coupled with Tottenham's defeat by Fulham, means they are now four points behind their fourth-placed neighbours with a game in hand. Arsène Wenger has found himself asked whether Arsenal's clarity of focus might be an advantage.
"Sometimes progress [in the knock-out tournaments] keeps the squad on a high and there are no squad rotational problems; it becomes more natural, so there are a lot of benefits," the manager said. "Physically it can be a disadvantage but mentally it could be an advantage. We will know at the end of the season."
Tottenham and Chelsea have made it plain that Champions League qualification is the absolute priority but Villas-Boas knows that the Europa League, which he won with Porto in 2011, has been good to him so far during his debut season at White Hart Lane, permitting him the scope, initially, to reinforce his match-day methods and build momentum.
And then there is the ideal of glory and silverware, which is highly prized by supporters. Here is an interesting question for the Tottenham faithful - would they rather win the Europa League and finish outside of the top four or vice versa?
For now, though, Villas-Boas wants it all and, despite the Fulham defeat, he remains convinced that he can have it. His team have lost three on the spin for the first time - they were beaten at Liverpool before the trip to Milan - and it has escaped the attention of nobody that Tottenham have crumbled at around this stage of the previous two seasons, albeit under the former manager, Harry Redknapp.
But Villas-Boas believes that his squad have the toughness to engineer a turning-point, and he hopes it can come at Swansea on Saturday week, following the international break.
"We are still confident for the Champions League," added Sigurdsson, who will face his old club at the Liberty Stadium. "We've shown during the season that we are more than capable. We've had a couple of bad results but we won't start doubting ourselves."
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