By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - When Tottenham Hotspur recently embarked on a five-match winning run to revive a season that was disappearing down the plughole it appeared Jose Mourinho had recovered his magic touch in the nick of time.
When Argentine winger Erik Lamela conjured a piece of wizardry to put Tottenham ahead against Arsenal last Sunday with a 'Rabona' goal it seemed it was rubbing off on his players.
Six days later that all seems like an illusion.
Arsenal claimed a deserved 2-1 win against a feeble Spurs with Mourinho afterward accusing some of his players of "hiding". If that was a tough pill for fans to swallow, what happened in Zagreb on Thursday left them asking whether something rotten has infected the core of the club.
Tottenham had one foot in the Europa League quarter-finals after a 2-0 home defeat of Dinamo Zagreb. It was their fifth win in a row after a Europa League second leg drubbing of Wolfsberger and league triumphs over Burnley, Fulham and Crystal Palace.
A week later in the Croatian capital, however, Tottenham produced a display so lacking in competence and spirit that they lost 3-0. Former Spurs great Glenn Hoddle described the capitulation as "diabolical" while goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris labelled it a "disgrace".
After the most humbling European night of his glittering managerial career an ashen-faced Mourinho accused his players of failing "with the basics of life".
It now seems those wins against Burnley, Fulham and Palace were just papering over cracks that reappear whenever Tottenham face any serious resistance.
While every club can have an off night, what was most worrying about Tottenham's defeat in Zagreb was the lack of leadership and fight on display.
Mourinho criticised the attitude of his players, while Lloris's comments hinted that despite a world-beating training HQ and stadium, something is broken in the club.
"We are a club full of ambition but the team at the moment is a reflection of what is going on in the club," Lloris said.
"We had great moments in the past because we could trust the togetherness in the team. Today I am not sure about that."
Mourinho had clearly targeted the Europa League as a two-for-one fix for a troubled season.
Winning it would have provided the club with some silverware and also put them back in the Champions League and made it easier to attract the sort of A-list players that Mourinho has traditionally been used to working with.
Defeat at Aston Villa on Sunday would leave Tottenham's hopes of a top-four finish hanging by a thread and while they do have a League Cup final ahead against Manchester City, even winning that might not placate Spurs fans.
They were incandescent after Thursday's debacle, with many on social media calling for chairman Daniel Levy to sack Mourinho.
Not only would that be expensive it would be an admission of guilt by the man who got rid of Mauricio Pochettino, the manager who turned Tottenham into serious title contenders, and replaced him with the former 'Special One' in November 2019.
Levy presumably thought Mourinho's winning mentality would help Tottenham shake off their under-achievers tag.
Pochettino's teams twice went close to landing a first league title since 1961, reached the 2019 Champions League final, a League Cup final and two FA Cup semi-finals.
They were still mocked as "Spursy" or unable deliver under pressure which seemed unfair on Pochettino's teams.
But after Thursday's humiliation it seems perfectly apt for a Tottenham side that, under Mourinho, rarely do justice to the club's motto 'To Dare is To Do'.
(This story fixes date in par 17)
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Christian Radnedge)