Aston Villa vs Tottenham: Race for fourth place may lack punch but Spurs can energise run-in with win

Aston Villa vs Tottenham: Race for fourth place may lack punch but Spurs can energise run-in with win

It might not be clear until April or even May if Tottenham’s visit to Aston Villa later today is a six-pointer for Champions League football or a less significant occasion altogether.

The Premier League are guaranteed at least four representatives in the revamped 36-team competition next season, but two of England, Germany and Italy are set to be awarded an extra place in the competition by UEFA, based on club coefficients.

In short, if English clubs outdo their German or Italian counterparts in Europe this spring, fifth place will be enough for Champions League football.

With Manchester United struggling for consistency and trailing fifth-placed Spurs by six points, having played a game more, the top five already appears well-set.

The lack of certainty feels strange and unsatisfactory, because it is unclear if Spurs and Villa are in the midst of a tense battle for one spot in the top-four — although Ange Postecoglou has bristled at the suggestion his side are only competing for fourth — or involved in something of a procession.

Aston Villa claimed a 2-1 win over a wasteful Spurs earlier this season (Getty Images)
Aston Villa claimed a 2-1 win over a wasteful Spurs earlier this season (Getty Images)

This afternoon’s game could be decisive, perhaps even a sliding-doors occasion for one or both clubs, or it may come to feel largely irrelevant.

For Spurs, the situation also brings the uncomfortable need for Arsenal and West Ham to excel in Europe to boost their hopes of returning to the top table.

Spurs could definitely do with Villa going deep in the Europa Conference League, and one question for both this game and the run-in is over the impact of Villa’s European campaign and Spurs’s lack of matches. Villa drew 0-0 with Ajax on Thursday in a last-16 first leg, and conventional wisdom suggests their exertions in Europe should be to Spurs’s advantage.

Postecoglou, though, would prefer more games (Spurs will play just 41 times this season, the least since 2005-06) and has said a stop-start campaign has contributed to his side’s lack of rhythm since their unbeaten start came to an abrupt end in early November.

Villa might be leggier than Spurs after the trip to Amsterdam, but they should be slicker and more in their groove than Postecoglou’s stuttering side — which is also a reflection of Unai Emery being further ahead in his rebuild than the Australian.

Spurs’s struggle for rhythm was underlined by another frustrating first half against Crystal Palace last weekend, but their roaring late comeback was encouraging and will have given Postecoglou plenty to consider.

A more adventurous opponent should suit them and Postecoglou can take heart from the clubs’ meeting in north London in November, even if Villa came away with a 2-1 win.

Spurs — missing both first-choice centre-backs, plus James Maddison, Yves Bissouma and Richarlison — squandered chance after chance before Villa’s comeback from a goal down.

“A Spurs win would swing the dial their way in the race for fourth”

Villa are a different beast at home, but that game demonstrated that Spurs should have little trouble creating chances against Emery’s high defensive line, and Postecoglou could flank Heung-min Son with two speedsters in Timo Werner and Brennan Johnson.

Richarlison is out with a knee injury but Pedro Porro should return.

A Spurs win would arguably swing the dial their way in the race for fourth, with seven of Villa’s remaining 11 fixtures against clubs in the top 10.

Tottenham are also still to play the top three again but have the more favourable run-in, with six of their 12 remaining games against clubs in the bottom half.

Strangely, though, the fate of one of these clubs probably rests with Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool, West Ham, Brighton and Villa themselves — England’s remaining representatives on the continent.