Soccer

Wembley factor hanging over Tottenham's title hopes

(AP Photo/Rob Harris, File)

By STEVE DOUGLAS

AP Sports Writer

The season hadn't even finished when diggers and cranes arrived at White Hart Lane in the middle of May, beginning the long job of demolishing a stadium that Tottenham had turned into a Premier League fortress.

It will be another year before the team returns to the site of its famous old ground to take up residence in a new 61,000-seat arena, built with the aim of giving the club a better chance of competing with Europe's elite.

But can they even remain in England's elite in the intervening 12 months?

For this season, Tottenham will play its "home" games in the Premier League and in European competition at Wembley Stadium, English soccer's 90,000-capacity national stadium located about 12 miles (19 kilometers) across north London. Chelsea, the defending league champion, is the first visitor on Sunday.

To say Tottenham has a poor record at Wembley would be an understatement.

In 10 matches since reopening in 2007, Tottenham has lost six times and won only twice. Last season, the team played its Champions League games at Wembley and lost to both Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen in the group stage, contributing to an early exit from the competition. Spurs then played Chelsea in the FA Cup semifinals and lost 4-2.

Contrast that with Tottenham's record at White Hart Lane last season: Played 23, won 21, drawn two.

Led by players like Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Toby Alderweireld, Tottenham has its best team in a generation - it finished third and second in the Premier League the last two seasons - and has the best points-to-game ratio of any team in England's top flight over the past two years. In normal circumstances, Tottenham might even by the favorite for the league title this season.

The Wembley factor threatens that status.

"We have a really big challenge this season, because it's not only to fight with the big clubs to try and win (the title) again, but the other thing is try to make Wembley our home," Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said days before the start of the season.

"That's a big challenge for us - similar to winning a title. To make Wembley home and change the fans' perception and feel, in the end, that Wembley can help us to be better and achieve our dream."

Sunday's match will be a test case to see whether the temporary tenants can adjust their style.

Tottenham's disappointing record could be because Wembley (105x69 meters) has a bigger playing surface than the cramped White Hart Lane (100x67 meters), which was among the smallest in the Premier League. Under Pochettino, Tottenham has a distinct pressing game, with the team keeping compact in the middle of the field and its defense playing a high line.

Put simply, there is more ground to cover at Wembley and therefore cracks appear in the team's set-up, especially in defense. For example, Spurs were the better team for large parts of the semifinal match against Chelsea, but still conceded four goals.

"It's so difficult to change your mindset and be ready, when you are so comfortable at White Hart Lane," Pochettino said at the end of last season.

Playing regularly at Wembley should help Tottenham's cause, but it is unlikely to feel like home. The team will undoubtedly be at a disadvantage compared to its title rivals.

"It is up to us," Tottenham captain Hugo Lloris said. "We are actors and have to put intensity into our performances, in our running and in our movement. We have to create something at Wembley."

There are historical parallels to Tottenham's travails at Wembley, and they are found close to home. North London rival Arsenal played its Champions League games at the old Wembley for two seasons (1998-2000) and the team failed to advance from the group stage in either season.

"It was a nightmare," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said last year. "In hindsight, it was the wrong decision."

There's no going back for Tottenham now, though. It's time to find a cure for its Wembley woes, starting this season against the team that denied Spurs the title in May.

More AP Premier League coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/PremierLeague

Steve Douglas is at www.twitter.com/sdouglas80

Updated August 17, 2017

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