In one sense, it seems vaguely absurd that Tottenham and Manchester United are already being written off by some of the Premier League punditocracy. It has been suggested in certain quarters that, having fallen three and nine points off the pace respectively, they will struggle to finish in the top four this season and hence fail to reach the spiritual promised land otherwise known as the Champions League. Their failure to qualify for the continental top tier might not be such a bad thing, in a way, considering that their most recent forays into the competition have ended in early elimination and quiet embarrassment. That said, there are the financial rewards to think about, even if qualification would leave them with the tricky conundrum of figuring out how to beat European sides with the calibre of, say, Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and PSV.
Still, while Spurs and United might not have shone during their last couple of incursions into Champions League territory, it feels rather premature to suggest they should settle for less than top four this campaign. The season is a mere 14 games old and, while Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City all look fairly competent at the moment, there's plenty of time for one or more of their rivals to lose momentum and fall away. This weekend's clash at Old Trafford will be crucial, however, with United under particular pressure. While Mauricio Pochettino's men might not be quite as enterprising as last season, they are still a hundred times tougher than the Spurs of old, and falling any further behind them would present a challenge for Mourinho and co. which would be extremely difficult to overcome.
Considering how the Pochettino revolution has transformed Tottenham into a far steelier side these days, it's easy to forget that, between 2001 and 2012, they failed to beat United even once. Similarly, Spurs failed to collect a three-point haul at Old Trafford between September 2012, when they won 3-2 under the bookish guidance of Andre Villas-Boas, and December 1989. Famously, Alex Ferguson once limited his team talk ahead of a game against Spurs to the immortal line: "Lads, it's Tottenham." It's a genuine credit to Pochettino's management, then, that much of that sense of hubris has been swept emphatically away in the present day.
While their Champions League showings might not have been up to much this season, that will only mean Spurs arrive at Old Trafford on Sunday even hungrier for a win. Tottenham have already stolen a march on the home side, in that they will have had an extra day's rest ahead of the match. Having only arrived back from the Ukraine in the early hours of Friday morning, United's clash with Zorya Luhansk could turn out to be a major hindrance in terms of fatigue. That's the problem with the Europa League, see, though Tottenham will have a sharp reminder of the competition's drawbacks soon enough.