GARY MABBUTT: Now we're closer to Europe than relegation

WE NOW move into the last eight games of the season and although Spurs run-in is not easy we are edging closer to a European spot rather than a relegation battle. It was vital we bounced back from the Carling Cup final penalty shoot-out defeat to Manches

WE NOW move into the last eight games of the season and although Spurs' run-in is not easy we are edging closer to a European spot rather than a relegation battle.

It was vital we bounced back from the Carling Cup final penalty shoot-out defeat to Manchester United - last season our form went the other way after the Wembley victory over Chelsea.

This time, the team have reacted positively. Indeed, for a side who have been fighting for their Premier League lives for most of the season, they have shown great character.

The 4-0 win over Middlesbrough set the tone, followed by a battling 1-1 draw at Sunderland, thanks to Robbie Keane's late equaliser.

But it has been our last two results - the richly-deserved 2-1 win at high-riding Aston Villa followed by Saturday's terrific 1-0 win over Chelsea - which have showed glimpses of what might have been this season.

Indeed, when you see the way Spurs played at Villa Park - and again against Chelsea at the Lane - there seems no reason why we should not have been in the same position as Villa are in this season and challenging for the top-four.

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Villa appear to have imploded over the past few weeks - remember they were four points clear of Arsenal in fourth a few weeks ago - but they are still the team most likeliest to challenge the Gunners for a Champions League spot.

Although we have difficult away games at Blackburn, Man United, Everton and Liverpool, we seem to play better against the top teams. We also appear to respond better to the pressure of playing the top teams - we are unbeaten against the top five, having beaten Liverpool, Chelsea and Villa - and we have to be looking at winning our remaining home games.

I feel our last four games at the Lane - West Ham, Newcastle, West Brom and Manchester City - are all winnable.

The league table is still so close - we are nine points off the drop zone yet just three off seventh - but all that can change within a couple of games.

The main thing is to improve our position from last season - we finished 11th on 46 points - and the aim has to better that this time.

We are now seeing the best of players like Keane, Aaron Lennon and Ledley King when he is fit.

It is no secret I was pro-Robbie last year when most of the team were not playing well. He's come back from his short stay at Liverpool and has shown his worth as captain.

Robbie is a great character - on and off the field - and a fans' favourite. He's been very honest about his return.

Robbie said he had the chance to play for his boyhood heroes but it did not work out - and he loves being back at Spurs.

Lennon in particular has been superb lately. He gave United's Patrice Evra a torrid time in the Carling Cup final, turning him inside out at Wembley.

Lennon's return to form is also good news for England - he thoroughly deserved his call-up for the games against Slovakia and Ukraine - and has overtaken the likes of Shaun Wright-Phillips.

Aaron is still a young player and once he improves his final ball and shows more control when he gets in good positions, he will be even better.

Having Ledley fit for so many games is a big bonus - his surprise inclusion in Capello's squad is richly deserved - but Jonathan Woodgate and Michael Dawson have both had superb seasons.

The good thing now is we've good competition for places all over the pitch, even in goal with Heurelho Gomes and Carlo Cudicini fighting it out. All the big clubs have this sort of competition for places and we are getting there.

The Carling Cup final was a great day out for the fans and the players gave everything.

And when supporters see the players giving their all, then they are happy. After the final I queued with fans for the Tube and despite losing the penalty shoot-out they were singing and in good voice.

On the day we more than matched United - possibly the strongest team in the world - and during the 90 minutes and the extra-time we had good chances to beat them.

OK, Ronaldo hit a post but Ben Foster also made two excellent saves to deny Lennon and Darren Bent. Foster's save from Bent - through the legs of a United player - was just incredible.

Personally, I'm not a fan of penalty shoot-outs - they are a lottery. You might as well give each player a ball and ask them to start juggling with the last one still going the winner.

If I had a carte blanche I would replace penalties with a Golden Goal after extra-time, with the first team to score the winner. The teams could change ends every 15 minutes and the outcome would still come down to a game of football.

I feel players would be more attack-minded and the Golden Goal would be just as dramatic as a penalty shoot-out.

We saw several players suffering from cramp at Wembley and general fitness would also come into it.

The Golden Goal was last used in the 2000 European Championships when France won but I suspect it will not be used again because of television scheduling.

Gary Mabbutt was talking to sports editor Patrick Mooney.