The stakes at tomorrow’s meeting of Tottenham Hotspur and Hearts are far less than a “Battle of Britain” might suggest – and not only because of the lopsided appearance of the tie after the first leg.
Spurs had effectively completed their task in the Europa League play-off by half-time of proceedings at Tynecastle, already 3-0 to the good and en route to a 5-0 triumph.
It is a sign of the relatively poor standing of the Europa League within English football, and a reflection of Scottish clubs’ fortune in the tournament, when tomorrow night at White Hart Lane the players of both sides will take to the field with the primary aim of merely proving a personal point.
However experienced or youthful the Spurs line-up, those in white will view the occasion less as an opportunity to progress in the sideshow of Continental competition, more as a personal audition for a leading role in the Premier League.
Those in the Hearts camp will naturally be out to salvage pride after a 5-0 reverse at home, but boss Paulo Sergio, with his side’s European campaign beyond repair, positioned the game in the same bracket as a closed-doors fixture or a cup tie against non-league opponents when he revealed he will take the opportunity to assess players he hasn’t yet seen in match action.
While the number of Jambos travelling to the English Capital will be looking to keep the score down, the thousands of expectant Spurs fans attending the match would only pay £30-plus for the second leg of a tie that is already a write-off if they felt the game in north London guarantees goals and excitement.
Anything less than a three-goal margin in favour of Spurs would be unacceptable to the anticipative fans who saw their side demolish their Scottish adversaries last Thursday. Therein lies the worry for Hearts.
Among the media and many fearful Hearts fans, much talk in the six days since Spurs swept through Edinburgh has centred around speculation on which players Harry Redknapp will let loose in the return game.
However, it is something of a moot argument whether or not Spurs will field a side comprising their glittering stars or centred more around their homegrown reserves and less expensive imports. Those hopefuls – as in Heurelho Gomes, Kyle Walker, Andros Townsend, Jake Livermore and Niko Kranjcar, all of whom impressed in varying degrees at Tynecastle – are more than capable of causing serious damage to a comparatively frail Hearts side relatively short on confidence.
It is more the intent of the Spurs players to prove a point and erase the memory of the 3-0 lesson they took from Manchester United on Monday that may determine how they play, particularly as they then face Manchester City on Sunday. The decision by Redknapp to sanction the departure of Robbie Keane to LA Galaxy last week signalled the manager’s confidence in his remaining trio of senior attackers: Roman Pavlyuchenko (14 league and European goals last season), Peter Crouch (11 goals), and Jermain Defoe (ten goals, including England internationals). The latter two have commanded more than £30 million in transfer fees throughout their careers.
Crouch is the man believed to be primed to start against Hearts and, proven striker of the last decade or not, he will be determined to score and seize a rare opportunity to force himself up the pecking order among Spurs strikers.
The paradox here is set against the changing face of football. In days gone by, this second leg would be a write-off, where plucky Hearts, beaten but with heads held high, could draw on their maturity and sense of pride and restore some dignity against a lacklustre Spurs who know the game is over. After all, a decent performance tomorrow night would bode well for the match that now matters most to them – the Edinburgh derby.
In an age when even the bigger teams had smaller squads with less strength in depth, when there existed more equality between Scottish and English clubs, and there existed a less intensive pressure from the media and supporters, Hearts might have approached this type of game differently. Now, the media glare and the fragile career of a footballer make for a daunting combination for the Capital side. Hearts, already decried as the epitome of a decline in a nation’s sporting talent and fearful of the reprisals of fans and the press should a repeat 5-0 defeat occur, will face a Tottenham team determined to post another resounding European result – if only for their own chances of success in the Premier League.