Preoccupation over coach Harry Redknapp’s future as England coach is hurting Tottenham, writes Richard Jolly.
Faltering Spurs are fading fast
Sir Alex Ferguson was incredulous when he heard about the edict from the English Football Association.
"Can you believe it?" he asked, chuckling about the absurdity of it. "I have had a letter from telling me not to discuss the England job."
The Manchester United manager has made plenty of controversial comments over the years but as he was among the many who had anointed Harry Redknapp as Fabio Capello's successor, there had been nothing outrageous in his rhetoric.
But it is easier to stop people discussing the white elephant at White Hart Lane than it is to prevent them thinking about it.
And, even though Redknapp has denied it, the evidence that the thought their manager will be appointed by England has affected their season is overwhelming.
Tottenham Hotspur's 5-1 FA Cup semi-final defeat to Chelsea on Sunday followed a run of eight league games that have produced only six points.
Along the way, Spurs have twice conceded five goals in London derbies and gone from title challengers to being embroiled in a three-way battle to finish fourth.
Ambitions have been downgraded. In what seemed a breakthrough season, cracks are suddenly appearing.
The 5-0 thrashing of Newcastle United, in the immediate aftermath of Capello's resignation, seems a long time ago.
The reality is that both Tottenham and England are limbo.
If it is hardly helping the international team's preparations for Euro 2012, the club side are suffering rather more. Their decline cannot be attributed solely to the question of Redknapp's future, but it hardly helps.
If managers, like players, experience peaks and troughs of form, Redknapp's has deteriorated.
Selection seemed simple in autumn when his starting 11 in the Premier League rarely changed. Now it is rather more complicated. Eight players have begun 27 league games or more, but several are showing signs of fatigue.
For the second successive season, Rafael van der Vaart has faded in the latter stages of the campaign. Emmanuel Adebayor has provided reminders he can be annoyingly inconsistent. Scott Parker and Luka Modric are not dominating the midfield as they were.
Perhaps most pertinently, Ledley King, long likened to a Rolls-Royce by Redknapp, is finding that a classic car can be outmanoeuvred by newer models. Spurs have conceded 18 goals in the captain's last seven appearances.
The decline of William Gallas and Michael Dawson's injury problems have magnified the captain's importance yet the impression that Spurs are over-reliant on a select group should not have been created. Perhaps only Manchester United have as deep a squad.
But the sight of Steven Pienaar excelling on loan for Everton invites questions if he could have done the same for Spurs; in Aaron Lennon's recent absence, the South African might have provided an inventive option on the right flank.
Yet while Redknapp has used fringe figures to spare most of his premier players the Europa League there has been a reluctance to trust some of the understudies in the Premier League.
And the backdrop has been favourable for a concerted challenge in England. Unlike Arsenal and Chelsea, they have not had the complications of an extended Champions League campaign. Unlike United and Manchester City, they have not had the pressure of expectation.
Yet those four clubs may provide a reason why Tottenham could come up short. They have won one and lost six of nine meetings.
Examine the results and with the notable exceptions of the 5-0 demolition of Newcastle and the 4-0 thrashing of Liverpool, they have largely impressed against the lesser lights.
In one sense that bodes well - their five remaining opponents include four relegation-threatened teams and no one in the top nine - but in another, it highlights Redknapp's difficulties in getting results against the best.
The age-old reasoning, that the motivator and wheeler-dealer of stereotype is no master tactician, is unflattering and unfair, but Redknapp has struggled to best his peers.
He switched shape in a half-time double change against Arsenal without halting the Gunners' inspired revival from 2-0 down to five-goal winners.
Tottenham were terrific for much of the 3-1 defeat to United without showing the ruthlessness the visitors exhibited.
The referee Martin Atkinson's poor judgement - he awarded Juan Mata a goal for a shot that never crossed the line - contributed to Chelsea's Wembley victory but Roberto Di Matteo's side nonetheless showed the greater resolve.
It means that rather than having an FA Cup final date with Liverpool, when Redknapp next appears at Wembley, it may be as the England manager.
Whether Spurs are then representing England in the Champions League, as long seemed certain, is up for debate. Theirs has been a year of diminishing returns, taking 2.21 points per game in the first half of the season and 1.21 thereafter.
When Tottenham were flying, Ferguson said they were playing the best football in the country. Acclaim came easily; it appeared that, after a lifetime of work, Redknapp was finally receiving deserved recognition.
While England are likely to come calling for him, his club career threatens to end in disappointment. Miss out on the top four and a campaign that promised so much for Tottenham will have delivered so little.
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