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Spurs have been given a reality check after defeat against Liverpool

12:09 04 September 2014

Mauricio Pochettino

Mauricio Pochettino

PA Wire/Press Association Images

Tottenham correspondent Ben Pearce examins Spurs’ start to the season under Mauricio Pochettino.

Liverpool debutant Mario Balotelli (left) battles with Nabil BentalebLiverpool debutant Mario Balotelli (left) battles with Nabil Bentaleb

They say it’s the hope that kills you, and it certainly felt that way at Tottenham on Sunday afternoon.

There was a great sense of positivity and expectation before kick-off at White Hart Lane, and rightly so.

Spurs had made a perfect start to life under Mauricio Pochettino, winning all four of their opening games – and that sequence extended to eight in a row if you included pre-season games.

The Lilywhites had shown their resilience and resolve to overcome West Ham with 10 men and then come from behind to beat AEL Limassol in Cyprus in the Europa League. They had then shown their quality and class to thump QPR 4-0 and triumph 3-0 over Limassol in successive home games.

New signing Eric Dier had made an immediate impact with two goals in his two Premier League games, while the likes of Erik Lamela and Nacer Chadli were already looking much-improved after last season’s disappointments.

On Saturday morning, Tottenham were top of the fledgling top-flight table and the future was bright. But that all changed in 90 minutes against Liverpool.

The Reds had won 5-0 at the Lane in December to end Andre Villas-Boas’ reign at Spurs, and then triumphed 4-0 at Anfield in March to shatter Tim Sherwood’s chances of keeping his job.

It was a depressing case of déjà vu on Sunday as Brendan Rodgers’ side won 3-0 in north London to expose many of last season’s flaws again, undermining the view that Pochettino had already made giant strides with Tottenham and showing that the gap to the top teams is arguably just as big as before.

All of a sudden, a natural revisionism meant the previous performances and results were also re-examined and questioned.

Were Spurs really that good against Limassol and QPR, or were their opponents just extremely limited?

Rangers were certainly well below the usual standard of Premier League opposition, and the weekend’s clash against Liverpool was always going to be the real test of where Spurs stand at the moment.

The answer was bad news – for two reasons. On the one hand, Tottenham were frail at the back and toothless up front, as they were in most of their meetings with the top teams last season.

Meanwhile, any idea that Liverpool are not the same without Luis Suarez was quickly corrected. While the Reds lost 3-0 at Manchester City last Monday, they were sublime at the Lane and, if debutant Mario Balotelli had finished his chances, they might have eclipsed last season’s 5-0 humiliation.

For both reasons, it looks like Spurs will struggle to finish in the top four again this season. These are early days, but Chelsea and Manchester City look unassailable, and Liverpool have proved that they are on a different level.

Arsenal could be the most vulnerable of the elite sides again, especially with Olivier Giroud out of action until the new year.

The Gunners also have a lack of strength in depth at centre-back and in defensive midfield, with Mathieu Flamini and Mikel Arteta both over 30 years old. However, they have qualified for the Champions League for the last 17 seasons.

Even if Manchester United are as bad as last season, which suddenly looks more possible than it did during the summer, Spurs are likely to find themselves fighting for fifth, sixth and seventh place alongside Everton.

That was the expectation before the start of the season so in that sense little has changed – it was always going to be a big ask for Pochettino to lead the Lilywhites into the top four at the first attempt, particularly given how much their rivals have strengthened during the summer.

However, the opening fortnight of the campaign provided so much promise that some Spurs fans may have begun to dream about confounding such lowly expectations and roaring back to where the club was between 2010 and 2013 – genuine contenders and a real threat to the top four.

There are positive signs that this season will be much more enjoyable than the last, and that the Lilywhites can be more dominant against inferior sides - especially at home - and avoid some of the upsets that undermined their 2013/14 campaign.

However, any dreams that Tottenham are suddenly ready to challenge the top teams have now been dented, and Pochettino’s goal must be to continue the good results against the lesser teams and progress in the Europa League and Capital One Cup while rebuilding confidence and momentum ahead of the north London derby against Arsenal at the Emirates on September 27.

Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs

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