Saturday, December 29, 2012

‘Exclusive’: Villas-Boas has 133 games to save his job

There was no malice in Sunderland, but more seasonal joy as Spurs overshadowed the home side at the Stadium of Light to secure a second victory in three days. Temporarily, at least, Tottenham sit in third place and it is fair to say that, despite the misgivings of some mischievous individuals in the national media, Andre Villa-Boas has more than three games to save his job. More like 133.

Stalemates at Villa and Sunderland were viewed by some observers as the roots of last season’s ‘failure’ to secure a Champions League spot. Yet within three days, Spurs have emerged triumphant at both grounds as the players begin to flourish following the AVB blueprint. Since that misleading 2-5 reverse at Arsenal, Spurs have won seven and drawn two of ten games in all competitions. This purple patch was sparked by the return of the talismanic Mousa Dembele who has yet to be on the pitch when Spurs have lost a match.

A recent conversation with a Spurs insider made pleasant and encouraging listening. The Portuguese is an extremely popular figure among the squad and his man management and personal skills seem to have been significantly underestimated. He is also gracious in defeat unlike so many of his Premier League counterparts. The likes of Alan Pardew and Brendan Rodgers do themselves few favours with their post-match justifications. Martin O’Neill’s claim that Spurs had not had many chances was stuck in a odd place between delusion and comedy.

But for some alert goalkeeping and the agonising profligacy of Emmanuel Adebayor, in particular, the outcome would have been decided long before a traditionally edgy five minutes of injury time. Michael Dawson had been slow to react when Sunderland capitalised on some slack defending to take the lead through ‘Peter Kay’ but was a key figure as the Spurs’ backline withstood an inevitable bombardment in the closing stages. O’Neill’s decision to withdraw Sebastian Larsson, one of the best deadball takers in the game, was curious but certainly beneficial to the away cause. In goal, the alertness and handling of Hugo Lloris was, again, exemplary. The Frenchman looks every inch a world class goalkeeper.

The machine-like Sandro bossed the midfield areas, allowing speed demons Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon the freedom to take on the Sunderland rearguard. Lennon has been in sparkling form this season and the record of Spurs never losing a game when he has been on the scoresheet continued. Shortly after half-time, a Carlos Cuellar own goal gave Spurs parity before Lennon delightfully flicked the ball past Kay and Matthew Kilgallon to collect his own pass in the area and coolly shoot Tottenham into a lead they would never relinquish.

Martin Atkinson, who clearly shares an optician with O’Neill, once more found his eyesight under scrutiny. The referee who infamously awarded Chelsea an FA Cup semi-final goal despite the ball not crossing the line became the latest official to book Bale for diving. Instinct and replays suggested that the Welshman had been impeded. The decision was quite ironic given Jermain Defoe’s unconvincing ‘stumble’ in the first half and Stephane Sessegnon spending much of the game lying on the deck with a mouthful of grass. Spurs have yet to ‘earn’ a penalty in the 2012/13 Premier League campaign in stark contrast to rivals Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal who have received more than one gift this season. We’d probably miss it anyway. But under AVB Spurs have ended 2012 firing on all cylinders.

*** A happy and healthy New Year to all readers of this blog. May your hopes and dreams be realised in 2013. We may share one or two of them ;).

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Bale force blows down Villa

In a week where rain and floods caused chaos across Britain, another natural phenomenon wreaked havoc in the Midlands. Gareth Bale stamped his world class imprint all over the second half as Spurs cantered to victory over a shellshocked Aston Villa. An even greater surprise was a third consecutive clean sheet. Seasoned Spurs watchers rubbed their eyes in disbelief as Tottenham somehow failed to surrender a poxy late consolation. This is not the Spurs we know and love.

A dominant first half delivered everything but the goal. There were more corners than a fridge full of Muller yoghurts yet Spurs’ almost comical dominance went unrewarded. Like a toothless youth in the Twilight saga, there was little bite about Tottenham in the final third. Villa were a different proposition in the opening second half skirmishes. Paul Lambert’s half-time rocket and positional rejig seemingly galvanised the home side and the more fearful among us awaited a sucker punch on boxing day, but it never came.

The shift in the game’s dynamic suited Tottenham. A more purposeful, attacking Villa approach left large spaces to be exploited and Spurs, through the pace and incision of Bale, took clinical advantage. A sublime, almost Iniesta-like, pass from Kyle Naughton unlocked the Villa back door and afforded Jermain Defoe the time to adroitly put Spurs ahead.

Stung into action, Villa pushed for an equaliser yet the excellent Sandro’s timely intervention prompted a sweeping counter that Bale rounded off with aplomb. Even Fabian Delph’s wreckless yellow carded challenge could not halt the surging Welshman. He scored his third off-balance and fourth with an emphatic finish high into the roof of the net sending the away support into raptures and Andre Villas Boas’ charges into fourth place on goal difference. Sheer nosebleed territory.

There was much to admire about this performance, but I particularly admired AVB’s rotation policy and gamble at the back given the thicket of festive fixtures. Michael Dawson’s brawn and aerial ability were a prerequisite against the physical demands of Stoke City yet the defensive nous and positional play of William Gallas in the testing, early exchanges of the second half were a key contributor to this victory. The emerging Naughton, again, showed promise as a makeshift left-back and the maligned Kyle Walker was blissfully error-free on his return to Villa Park. Scott Parker’s effective cameo off the bench provided another encouraging aspect given the forthcoming fixture congestion.

What a contrast to Spurs’ last visit to the stadium where Parker’s late introduction was greeted with ire and a lovely way to shrug off the Christmas meat sweats.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

AVB > PMT > Stoke City

Stoke City are more defensive than a turkey in the approach to Christmas. Perhaps it was inevitable that the well-drilled Potters backline would neutralise Spurs’ frustrated forward flurries and earn their ninth clean sheet of the season. More surprising, maybe, was that the home side managed a second straight shut-out of their own.

Few can deny that Tony Pulis organises his teams effectively with an almost unrivalled resilience, but if Stoke were playing in your back garden you would probably draw the curtains and hope for a sudden infestation of triffids. It is football, but not as we choose to know it.

I started the morning with every intention of heading to White Hart Lane (despite another impromptu ‘home’ move) yet instead spent the afternoon watching a chick flick at the cinema while gazing at my phone for match updates. The girlfriend had a spot of ‘lady trouble’and I made a late judgment call that I would rather watch a girlie movie in the company of a premenstrual woman than be hypnotized by the windmill-like arms of Ryan Shawcross.

In the post-match, perspective-free climate where hysteria reigns and you are only as good as your last result then this draw was a minor disappointment, but Spurs head into Christmas on equal points with the third place team whose fans were burning replica shirts just 11 days ago.

The intense festive period usually throws up a mixed bag of results yet the Andre Villas-Boas reign is more than keeping pace. Be hopeful, but most of all be patient. And pray for triffids ahead of the next Stoke game.

***May I wish all readers of this blog a very Happy Christmas. Your support and readership is greatly appreciated. Have a memorable time this holiday season, in whatever way you choose to spend it.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Fear and loathing in North London

On eighty minutes, a fan spontaneously combusted in front of me. Another doused himself with a canister of petrol and waved a match provocatively before he was wrestled to the ground by a posse of frenzied stewards. A female fan offered round a hip flask of Rohypnol. Everyone had their own solution. Any excuse to sidestep another mad Tottenham finale.

The late substitution of Mousa Dembele was met with dumbfoundment and derision by those around me as Spurs clung on to a slim 1-0 advantage over a desperate Swansea. Andre Villas-Boas’ negative substitutions in winning positions have been a contributing factor to the glut of late goals conceded in recent months and the removal of our midfield talisman only increased the likelihood of a late Swansea equaliser. We had been here before.

A sporting encounter peppered with easy-on-the-eye passing swiftly degenerated. The fear of what might happen overshadowed events on the pitch. The sound of jangling nerves was audible in the stands. Swansea, who failed to register a shot on target, found encouragement and fed on the prevailing air of uncertainty.

Suddenly, all hell broke loose. Hugo Lloris raced out to punch away a late Swansea punt and poleaxed Michu with the follow through. Referee Mike Dean played advantage and Spurs broke away seeking a second, game-killing goal on the counter only for impressive sub Andros Townsend to be foiled by Swans’ keeper Gerhard Tremmel.

The away side furiously objected to Townsend playing to the whistle and, as tempers flared, a tracksuited Jake Livermore sprang from the bench like a geezer at a bus stop to defend his friend and teammate (receiving a booking for his troubles). When the whistle blew, a stopwatch-defying eight minutes into injury time, fans punched the air and greeted the clean sheet like a minor miracle.

Late tensions aside, there was much to be admired in the home display. Spurs pressed Swansea relentlessly all over the pitch and, but for the profligacy of the off-key Jermain Defoe, might have sealed the points earlier and saved the home support from their injury time travails.

William Gallas was an old rock in defence while Kyle Naughton showed pleasing assurance at left-back and made a terrific, chance denying interception in the second half. The criminally underrated Aaron Lennon fizzed around the field like a runaway Christmas toy and the late introduction of Townsend offered Spurs another jet-heeled outlet in the absence of healing superstar Gareth Bale.

Jan Vertonghen’s lightning reactions from Kyle Walker’s free-kick delivered the crucial goal but fellow Belgian Dembele was, again, the star turn and driving force between defence and attack. Rarely has a £15 million fee appeared such a bargain. Spurs have yet to lose while the Belgian has been on the field of play, ever more reason to keep him on it.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

AVB: Witness the unfitness

Hatem Ben Arfa, James Morrison, Robert Snodgrass, Hal Robson-Kanu, Daniel Sturridge, Simeon Jackson, Jan Vertonghen, Edin Dzeko, Theo Walcott, Andy Carroll, Gregorz Raziak, Steven Pienaar and Nikica Jelavic. The roll call of late goalscorers against Spurs continues to grow. Okay, Rasiak didn’t score, but even a static Pole with a criminal haircut might net against Tottenham in the last 10 minutes.

The grim but unsurprising statistic that Spurs would be top of the Premier League (and in the League Cup quarter-finals) if games finished on 80 minutes highlights a trend that shows little sign of relenting.

Inevitably some will blame William Gallas for chain-smoking by a goalpost or Hugo Lloris reading Proust to a ballboy, but perhaps a simple lack of fitness is the key. When Sebastien Bassong left Spurs just before the end of the transfer window, he was asked the difference between the training regimens of new boss Andre Villas-Boas and everyone’s un/favourite ex-gaffer Harry Redknapp. The answer was unusually illuminating.

According to Bassong, most of Spurs’ training under Redknapp focused on ‘running’ with new coach Villas-Boas concentrating on playing football through which the team would ‘naturally’ gain fitness. Has AVB failed to witness the unfitness?

Of course, Saturday’s late reverse against Everton came against a quality side, away from home, several days after Spurs had played in the Europa League with the likes of Gareth Bale, Younes Kaboul, Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Scott Parker still missing and the talismanic Mousa Dembele, almost inevitably, off the pitch.

Yet disappointment should be diluted by the previous three league wins on the bounce, progress to the last 32 of European competition and that Spurs remain on equal points with fourth place Everton. Away fixtures against five of last season’s top six sides (excluding Spurs) have also been fulfilled.

In the words of the late Whitney Houston, ’it’s not right, but it’s okay’ (except in the last 10 minutes).

*Regular readers of this blog may have noticed my absence over the last 10 days. Like Alan Partridge before me, I am currently living in a hotel after a crazy home move (into storage), heinous work deadline, emotional wedding and an early hours brush with Brighton’s knife community. Regular service will hopefully be resumed soon.