Having dispatched Paços de Ferreira 3-1 on aggregate, Tottenham Hotspur discovered their UEFA Europa Conference League group-stage opposition on Friday. There was the customary wait, as UEFA invariable dragged out the ball-drawing ceremony for a seeming eternity.
The infographics explained every descriptive minutia of what could have been a much simpler process. They glossed over the reasoning behind separating Azerbaijan’s Qarabağ and Alashkert of Armenia (ethnic despisal and 30 years of warfare). After the interminable dross of ex-player cameos and corporate spiel, the draw was finally conducted.
Tottenham will compete in Group G with the French Stade Rennais, Vitesse Arnhem of the Netherlands, and Slovenia’s NŠ Mura. Saved the ignominy of Gibraltese ties or some other embarrassing fixture, fans will contemplate a middle-ish outcome. It may not be without fault, but passing the group stage in top spot should easily be within Tottenham’s remit.
An In-Depth Look at Tottenham Hotspur’s Europa Conference League Group
The Breton outfit finished sixth in last season’s Ligue 1, with this their fourth consecutive season of European football. They earnt qualification to last season’s Champions League, but that involved a fair degree of luck.
The 2019/20 season was unique for being finished on a points-per-game (PPG) basis, rather than resuming behind closed doors. It was the only one of Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues not to restart after the initial Covid-19 lockdown.
Rennes were somewhat fortunate that the league finished there and then, with 1.79 PPGs over fourth placed Monaco’s 1.75. That Rennes escaped their scheduled trip to Paris Saint-Germain will no doubt have helped their PPG standing.
In last season’s Champions League, they finished bottom of their group, only amassing one point to Russian outfit Krasnodar. They won the Coupe de France in 2019 against Paris Saint-Germain.
The side boasts Jérémy Doku, the Belgian winger that made a surprise start against Italy in their European quarter final. He more than held his own then, and represents a potential talent in waiting. That said, Tottenham should have enough to see off the north-west Frenchmen.
The club has come to be associated with Chelsea, seemingly relegated to a finishing school for youngsters from West London. The likes of Mason Mount, Nemanja Matić and Patrick van Aanholt have all hopped over to the Netherlands to hone their latent potential under the stewardship of the big brotherly partnership.
They last faced English opposition in 2015, losing to Southampton 5-0 on aggregate in the Europa League qualifiers. They have never made it out of European group-stage, and Tottenham should not have issues dealing with them.
Fans may be worried about the potential for a banana-skin, especially considering their closeness with Chelsea and the ignominy of suffering to their ‘second team’. But regardless of which side Nuno Espirito Santo chooses, Vitesse should not worry Tottenham too much.
Comparatively little is known of the Slovenian champions among English football’s chattering classes. They are a phoenix club, arising form the youth set-up of the bankrupt Mura 05 (itself a reformation of a previous Mura side). They underwent back-to-back promotions from 2015 to 2017, and won the league for the first time under any iteration.
Based in a town of just 11,000, this is one of those footballing occasions in which the side are simply happy to be there.
Tottenham faced Slovenian opposition in the 2012/13 Europa League group-stage in the form of Maribor. They did face difficulty, drawing 1-1 away under Andre Villas-Boas before a 3-1 home victory.
The cruel realities of the incoherent UEFA tournament strategy are that Mura and Tottenham are dramatically divergent quality-wise. Tottenham could, and probably should, easily defeat them with a second or third string side. Whether or not Santo opts for weakened line-ups remains to be seen.
Tottenham Should Stroll to Top Spot in Europa Conference League
The two teams that Santo picked in the play-off round illustrate the nature of his priorities. In the first-leg, he selected a youthful side replete with the likes of Nile John and Dane Scarlett starting. There were also debut appearances for Christian Romero and Bryan Gil, in an attempt to bring the newcomers up to match fitness.
When this elective 11 was not enough to overcome Portugal’s fifth side, he fielded a much stronger side for the return leg. Whilst not quite the first team, the manager selected a strong side, replete with Eric Dier and Lucas Moura, both of whom started the Premier League tie on Sunday. There was also space for the (possibly) rehabilitated Harry Kane, and strong (possibly unnecessary) substitutions, with Heung-min Son and Steven Bergwijn both coming on later.
The extensive nature of group-stage football allows Tottenham to tinker. They can play youthful, but Santo has demonstrated he will use his world-class players if required. Whatever happens, Tottenham should have enough about them to top the group and reach the next stages. The road to Tirana begins in earnest.
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