Tottenham has already qualified for the Europa League's knock-out rounds, but there are still important decisions to be made regarding Spurs' final group stage match against Besiktas in Turkey tomorrow. A win or a draw will mean Spurs clinch the group and will be a seeded team in the next round of the competition, which is a significant advantage considering the quality of the teams parachuting in from the Champions League group stages.
In some ways, the personnel decisions that Mauricio Pochettino could tell us a lot about how seriously he plans to take the Europa League going forward. Swirling in the background of the expected team news and release of the Europa League squad are the players' admitted fatigue after a brutal stretch of matches the past two weeks, the need for adequate rotation and rest for key players, the return of players from injury, and the importance of this weekend's trip to Swansea in the Premier League.
There are decent arguments that can be made for rotation, and for taking a strong side to Turkey. Let's examine each of them.
1. Rotate the side
If you ask Tottenham fans whether Spurs should prioritize the league or the Europa League, most of them would probably answer "the league." While there are a lot of factors that go into answering that question, the majority of fans probably see the Europa League as more of a distraction than a priority, especially in the group stages. Pochettino may agree as well, and with a trip to Wales looming in a few days, it could very well be that we'll see some fresh faces in the starting eleven tomorrow in Turkey.
This is not to say that Poche will yank all his starters. The reality of Spurs' injury-depleted squad is that several first-team starters will likely play significant minutes against Besiktas. But there are a few key positions where rest and recuperation could lead to a stronger, fresher team for this weekend's trip to Swansea.
The return of Kyle Walker is key here. It's unlikely that Poche will want Kyle1 to play in two matches so quickly together, so giving Vlad Chiriches and Kyle Naughton some respite could be important. Likewise, resting the likes of Jan Vertonghen, Ryan Mason, Christian Eriksen, Nabil Bentaleb, and Harry Kane and starting players like Benjamin Stambouli, Younes Kaboul, Eric Dier, and Mousa Dembele would hopefully give the starters enough time to recover somewhat from the Crystal Palace match to make a difference against Swansea. With Emmanuel Adebayor back in Togo, one of Roberto Soldado or Harry Kane will likely play, unless Pochettino wants to go with someone like Nacer Chadli as a false nine.
Likewise, there are reports that Pochettino is ready to give academy players like Josh Onomah and Harry Winks another chance in the first team squad tomorrow evening. Throwing the kids into the fire against Besiktas may be a risky move, but it would give Poche a chance to evaluate his rising youth players in the crucible of an away match against a continental opponent. There's value in that.
And let's not forget that Spurs HAVE qualified for the next round already. Winning the group is nice, but it doesn't change the fact that they're progressing regardless.
2. Go for it / YOLO
In the Cartilage Free Captain writers room, Michael Caley and Graham MacAree were recently discussing Liverpool's chances for qualifying for Champions League next year ahead of yesterday's match against Basel. Based on their league form and chances of finishing fourth in the EPL this season, they determined that Liverpool could nearly double their (slim) chances of making the Champions League by finishing third in their group, dropping out of the Champions League, and parachuting into a seeded Europa League place. The thinking was that the path to winning the Europa League and thus automatically qualifying for the next year's UCL competition was easier than the path that leads to fourth place in the Premier League. It's hard to argue against that position.
Spurs are actually in a similar position. If they draw or beat Besiktas and win their Europa group they enter the knock-out rounds as a seeded team and will likely not have to face the likes of Zenit, Liverpool, Inter, Athletic Bilbao, or Ajax until later in the competition. If they lose, all bets are off and they could easily be drawn against a very solid opponent in the next round, dramatically decreasing their chances of progression.
Even without Demba Ba, Besiktas is a solid opponent, and Spurs are playing away from home. The best way to secure a result is to play a team that features a number of first-choice players. Playing a weakened side could backfire spectacularly, and if Europa is Spurs best chance of making it to the Champions League next season, it's a pretty big gamble to rotate too much.
The choices I list above are stark, but the actual match day squad very well could be a hybrid of the two approaches. We've seen Pochettino hedge his bets before in Europa League matches, fielding sides that include bench players in some positions but also fielding rehabbing players and a few starters in key positions, and others on the bench. We very well could see something like that again.
As I write this article, Tottenham has tweeted quotes from Pochettino saying that he is taking this match seriously, but that he probably will rest a few starters. Either way, Spurs will do their best to achieve a result, How much rotation and the overall quality of the team could determine whether Spurs end up on a slightly easier path to Europa League glory.