By Martyn Herman
Mauricio Pochettino returns to his old club Southampton on Saturday (2.45pm) trying to keep his Tottenham Hotspur side on course for the prize that he clearly does not really desire.
Tottenham are sixth in the Premier League, one above Southampton, and should they remain there they would automatically be rewarded with a Europa League spot.
The nature of Europe’s secondary club competition means Thursday night trips to far flung destinations and lots of Sunday kick-offs in the Premier League – a routine that puts an inevitable strain on domestic ambitions.
Tottenham slogged their way through to the Europa League last 32 this season before losing to Fiorentina, extra games that appear to have damaged their top-four challenge.
“The Europa League is not an easy competition, it’s very tough, because it effects your domestic league,” Pochettino, who transformed Southampton’s fortunes in his 18-months on the south coast and took them to eighth, told reporters at Tottenham’s training ground.
“I confirm because that was always my opinion at Southampton and I confirm that it’s very difficult to manage the Europa League with the Premier League and domestic cups.”
The only time Tottenham have played in the Champions League, under Harry Redknapp in 2010-11, they were not involved in Europe the season before and ended fourth in the Premier League.
“Maybe we would have been closer (to top four) this season,” he said. You spend a lot of energy when you play in the Europa League.”
Tottenham are seven points behind fourth-placed Manchester City so they are still mathematically in the hunt for a top-four finish, but the Europa League is the more likely destination.
Even if Tottenham collapsed in the run-in they would almost certainly finish seventh and should Arsenal beat Aston Villa in the FA Cup final that would also seal a Europa League spot.
Pochettino said he just wants a strong finish to what he calls a “transition” season at White Hart Lane.
“In football you need to always try to be positive and to win,” he said. “If we achieve the Europa League maybe it’s not the supporters’ dream or the players dream but maybe it’s good for the financial side of the club.
“The most important thing is to be ambitious and understand we need to build a strong team for next season and fight for the top four. You have to be competitive and ambitious.”