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Football Whispers
 By Ben Pearce

Spurs suffer setbacks but Champions League offers glimpse of promise

It has been a strange month for Tottenham, who have taken forward strides and offered signs of progress but also suffered setbacks and provided ammunition for cynics and critics.

On the one hand, they not only beat Liverpool for the first time under Mauricio Pochettino, they thrashed them 4-1. Reigning European champions Real Madrid were then sent packing in similar style (3-1) on a famous night at Wembley, following an impressive 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu.

After those games, Pochettino's vision of winning the Premier League and/or Champions League did not seem particularly far-fetched.

On the flip side, the defeats away against Manchester United and Arsenal have shown how far Tottenham still have to go, and massively undermined any hopes of a title bid this season, given they are now 11 points off the top.

There are mitigating factors. The showdown with Arsenal was ill-timed with Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Harry Winks returning from injury.

Collectively, Tottenham did not look fully fit or prepared and important refereeing decisions went against them too.

Nonetheless, there were some questionable claims after the match. Hugo Lloris said "The spirit was good, we were in the fight, we were able to develop our game with the ball on the floor."

This is all highly debatable.

More surprisingly, Pochettino reflected: "If you analyse the game until we conceded the goal, I think the team was doing well. We were better than them. But in the end it was even." Really?

Spurs have only just returned to action after the international break but this already seems a moment for some honest introspection and hard truths as Pochettino and his squad analyse a third defeat in five matches.

The first of those, the 3-2 Carabao Cup loss against West Ham, is looking increasingly careless and costly as Tottenham fall further behind Manchester City.

Having led 2-0 against the Hammers on home turf, Spurs should still be alive and kicking in that tournament, with a rematch against Arsenal to come in the quarterfinals. Instead, they collapsed and bowed out at the same stage as last year.

Tottenham have endured a mixed month with a smattering of highs and lows, most recently defeat at Arsenal.

While Pochettino continues to argue that the fortune around draws and the typical weakening of lineups makes the domestic cups easier to win and less impressive than the top prizes, it is worth noting that Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea are all present alongside Arsenal in the last eight.

Just like Arsenal's FA Cup triumph last term, when they had to beat Manchester City and Chelsea in the semifinal and final, winning the League Cup this campaign looks like it would be an achievement.

The question remains, as loud as ever: where is that elusive piece of silverware going to come from at Tottenham?

Their best chance of glory might just be in the Champions League now. And, given the immense difficulty of winning the competition, that says as much about Spurs' domestic disappointments as their success in Europe.

Nevertheless, Pochettino's side have certainly exceeded expectations on the continent and have proved they will be a force to be reckoned with in the round of 16.

The next match, away against Borussia Dortmund on Tuesday, was originally supposed to be a crucial fixture in Group H. In tandem with the opening clash between the sides at Wembley, it was due to decide whether Spurs or their German rivals would finish second behind Madrid.

Things have turned out rather differently. Instead, Tottenham board the plane lying eight points clear of Dortmund and three ahead of holders Real, with qualification already assured. That takes the pressure off in Germany, while Dortmund have only won one of their last eight matches.

This is probably a good game for Spurs at this juncture, as they bid to build some momentum ahead of the festive period and a run of eminently winnable league matches against West Bromwich Albion, Leicester, Watford, Stoke and Brighton.

Tottenham's Champions League nights may have provided most of the highlights so far this season, and further repeats over the coming months could leave Spurs fans dreaming of arguably the most prestigious trophy in the club game.

But the north Londoners can only slightly improve their position in Europe for now, securing a first place finish which is not guaranteed to result in a kindlier knockout draw. With the top four fight so hotly contested, domestic affairs must take priority now. Saturday's clash against West Brom is surely the bigger game this week.

The trip to Dortmund is probably an occasion where the performance is more important than the result.

The hope must be that Kane, Alli and Winks regain some rhythm -- assuming they are better off playing than resting -- and that Spurs go into the ensuing matches with greater confidence and, crucially, creativity.

Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.


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