Can Harry pull a few rabbits from his hat?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 February, 2011, 12:00am

Tottenham Hotspur will be hoping that the Year of the Rabbit begins more smoothly than the way the Tiger Year just finished. Before overseeing his side's first victory in five matches mid-week, Harry Redknapp had to deal with a series of minor disasters.

They could mean the difference between a great season at White Hart Lane and an ultimately disappointing campaign of unfulfilled promise.

Key midfielder Luka Modric underwent an emergency appendix operation, which is likely to rule him out of Spurs' upcoming Champions League tie at AC Milan. New signing Steven Pienaar missed the game at Blackburn after being accidentally knocked unconscious at training by fellow South African Bongani Khumalo. Then, Ledley King's scheduled groin operation in Germany was delayed a week when the club captain lost his passport.

Add to that, their humiliating elimination from the FA Cup at the hands of Fulham plus a lack of success in final transfer day dealings - they were linked to as many as half a dozen players including Blackpool captain Charlie Adam and Atletico Madrid's Diego Forlan - and the omens are less than auspicious as the Metal Rabbit takes centre stage.

As pretty a style of football that they play, and as many neutrals who have been won over by 'Arry's loveable Londoners, it will all mean nothing if Spurs fail to finish fourth, which would secure another shot at the Champions League next season. This is more important, in many ways, than progressing beyond the round-of-16 tie against Milan, with the first leg in Italy on February 15.

'We have probably punched above our weight in the Champions League a little bit and exceeded people's expectations,' said Tottenham goalkeeping coach, Tony Parks. 'I think it takes most clubs four or five years of regularly being there to get where we've got in our first season.

'The only problem we have now is that people expect us to qualify year in, year out, which is very difficult from what is probably the strongest league in Europe.'

Parks was Tottenham's hero when they tasted their last European success, more than a quarter of a century ago. In the 1984 Uefa Cup final, he saved the decisive spot kick as Spurs beat Belgium's Anderlecht 4-3 on penalties after the tie had finished 2-2 on aggregate.

Then he was a raw 21-year-old goalkeeper, who, despite his cup heroics, would fail to go on and fulfil his potential, making just 37 league appearances for Spurs over eight years before a journeyman career at 14 other clubs, including Brentford and Falkirk. After retiring in 2002, he joined the coaching staff at White Hart Lane in 2008.

As they celebrated European success in 1984, Spurs' domestic league campaign had a disappointing outcome as they finished eighth during a season that Liverpool were champions and also won the European Cup.

Comparing the 1984 and 2011 sides, Parks had few doubts that the current crop was better equipped to cope with the added workload and had greater quality across the park.

'No matter what era you come from, to go on and win a major European honour is fantastic,' he said. 'There were creative players in the 1984 team like Glenn Hoddle, Ossie Ardiles and Micky Hazard. 'I think the current team would edge it. There is more creativity from all over the pitch - people who can score goals and control games. Players amaze me with the quality they produce at unbelievable pace in hectic situations.'

One of those players is Gareth Bale, but the influential Welsh winger is sidelined with a back injury, adding to the headaches of coach Redknapp. And while Spurs had a relatively quiet transfer window, their main rivals for fourth spot splashed the cash. Manchester City recruited Bundesliga hotshot Edin Dzeko for GBP27 million (HK$340 million), while Chelsea spent more than GBP70 million to lure striker Fernando Torres from Liverpool and Benfica defender David Luiz to Stamford Bridge.

And if the clubs above them aren't enough to worry about, fifth-placed Tottenham also have to be concerned about those just below them. This weekend they host eighth-placed Bolton before an away trip to sixth-placed Sunderland: two much-improved clubs this season.

'From a couple of years ago when you could predict with certainty the four teams who could finish top, I now think you can choose from seven or eight,' Parks said. 'Look down the league and look how well Blackpool have done, taking six points from Liverpool in one season is phenomenal by anyone's standard.

'The league is strong right the way through which makes it more and more difficult to qualify via the top four.'

Last season, when Tottenham finished strongly to edge Manchester City for fourth spot, goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes was one of the heroes. Under Parks' tutelage, the Brazilian overcame a bumpy transition from Dutch giants PSV in 2008, to shake the tag of Spurs' 'dodgy keeper' and be a vital cog in the side.

It could be a moment of brilliance from Gomes, as much as from the more heralded Bale, Modric or Rafael van der Vaart, that will bring a happy ending to Spurs' roller-coaster season.

'He is more than capable of the big moments and towards the back end of last season, he produced magnificent saves against the likes of Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City,' Parks said. 'Obviously you need a bit of luck and for the ball to run the right way for you, but you always need individual brilliance to come out on top.'

In the Rat Year of 1984, it was Parks' solo skill that brought Uefa Cup glory to north London. And in 2011, Harry will need plenty of Rabbit Year heroes if Spurs are going to keep their great European adventure going.