Monday, February 25, 2013

The brilliance of Bale vs the betrayal of Moore

More Gareth Bale brilliance elevated Spurs above a spirited West Ham stoked by the memories of the legendary Bobby Moore. The Hammers may have lost their ‘cup final’, but I understand premium horsemeat lasagne was available at David Gold’s post-match banquet. The meat passes better than Guy Demel.

To quote a twisting Peter Griffin, ‘third is the word’. Tottenham battled back from a 1-2 deficit to nudge ahead of Chelsea and maintain a four point gap over Arsenal before Sunday’s crunch north London derby. Inevitably, our old friend Howard Webb played his part in the drama, but an elite side usually finds a way to negotiate adversity rather than reach for excuses. Silently and impressively, Tottenham now resemble a team of that description.

Spurs have negotiated 27 league games without winning a single penalty as our rivals inch towards double spot-kick digits – it took Webb a mere 25 minutes to allow West Ham to surpass our non-existent total. Was it a penalty? I think so. Returning ‘hero’ Scott Parker certainly followed through after winning the ball despite the initial reaction that this was more jiggery-pokery from Yorkshire’s least popular ex-copper. Undoubtedly, the kick would not have been awarded the other way. There were at least two penalties within a second before Gylfi Sigurdsson’s prodded equaliser. Most of us were just grateful that the former Right Said Fred impersonator allowed the goal!

But for the fly-squatter palms of Jussi Jaaskelainen it might have been a baseball score. The oddly under-appreciated Finn was, again, sensational between the sticks involved in repelling 25 shots on the hammered goal. West Ham sweated blood for seventy minutes, but eventually they ran out of fuel like a second hand banger and true (Aston Martin) class told.

Andre Villas-Boas’ selections and substitutions were immaculate. The Portuguese wisely opted for a more physical back four to cope with the wayward arms and papier-mache legs of Andy 'Caravan' Carroll. His removal of the influential Mousa Dembele (who the home side were doing their level best to remove ahead of Sunday’s crunch derby) was a relief, but the introductions of the energetic Sigurdsson and clever prompting of Tom Carroll provided unexpected dividends. Suddenly, Spurs dominated a tiring Clarets midfield who began blowing bubbles from the wrong end.

To his credit, Webb did allow the critical advantage that enabled the felled Bale to right himself before taking Carroll’s neat pass to stroke home the ridiculous last minute winner. The 'spirit of Stalteri' was reborn.

The embrace of Bale and Villas-Boas in the euphoria following the Welshman’s winner illustrated a special relationship not evident with the previous manager. Not long after Harry Redknapp’s ungrateful removal, the world class Welshman signed a new four-year contract and, grinning, remarked upon the new tactics and modus operandi of his replacement. One cannot help but suspect a certain ‘method’ in Daniel Levy’s ‘summer madness’. This is a bold, new Tottenham and, with due gratitude to the past, I’m delighted to witness the revolution.

* Bobby Moore was, for most of us, the greatest footballer ever to pull an England jersey over his head, a true gentleman and credit off the field. The world class, consummate defender almost joined Spurs, Bill Nicholson certainly wanted him, but sadly that move never came to fruition. My admiration for the man is boundless and it is a great source of pride that my dad and dear, departed uncle were present at Wembley to watch Moore, Peters and co lift the World Cup in 1966.

But it is a pride tinged with sadness. So much of the adulation for Moore’s achievements and defensive grace came long after his passing. This is modern football where a misty-eye, black armband and minute’s applause apparently erase the sins of the past.

Where was the support from West Ham, and more notably England and the FA, when the legendary Moore was scraping a living doing minor, 'fish and chip’ commentary for Radio Essex?

Bobby died in relative poverty and these after-the-event eulogies and the belated, mind-crunching hypocrisy carry a heavy sting in the tail. Another reason why I am ‘against modern football’.

The likes of Paul Gascoigne and others need this help and appreciation right now. For the love of god, let us learn from the mistakes of the past and not wait for these grand heroes to be buried six feet underground.

** Spurs fan and prolific author Norman Giller has written a timely book on Bobby Moore 'The Master' where all profits go to the most worthy 'Bobby Moore Fund' set up by the great man's widow shortly after his passing. Norman knew Bobby throughout his storied career and the book is a wonderful way to learn more about his mistreatment and pay respect to his legacy of helping to find a cure for cancer.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Bollocks, we’re out….aagh, Dembele! See you in Amsterdam!

For Spurs, the end of one European dream could mean the beginning of another. It’s a perverse fact that elimination from the Europa League presents our club with a ‘clear run’ at third/fourth place and that ‘valuable’ Champions League spot without the ‘distraction’ of the cups. Wait a beeping minute…Dembele bloody scored! Tottenham are headed to Amsterdam, baby!

Mousa Dembele’s brilliant and timely intervention gave Tottenham a merited pass into the last 16 against an uber-defensive Lyon side intent on stealing a win via a set-piece and a prolonged, rearguard action. ‘Throw your fromage in the air, throw it up like you just don’t care. And if you knocked out an ex-Gooner’s team, I wanna hear you scream. Oh yeah! Oh yeah!’

It was perhaps a bullet dodged for Andre Villas-Boas. The Portuguese has overachieved in his first league season as Spurs boss, and disproved the doubting media vultures, but his cup selections have often been as ill-judged as Nicky Minaj’s. FA Cup and League Cup progression were needlessly discarded with ill-conceived line-ups against Norwich and Leeds, and for old school fans this still rankles. Spurs are a cup team after all.

The omission of the returning Hugo Lloris set the early alarm bells ringing and deprived the former Lyon star a true hero’s welcome as well as robbing Spurs of that cat-like presence in the box. Tottenham also missed Michael Dawson’s lion-like roar at the back.

The sight of Brad Friedel rooted to his line for the Lyon opener was grimly predictable. He is the Pete Doherty of goalkeepers. The American is an excellent back-up between the sticks and admirable pro, though this felt like the wrong call if Spurs are in the competition to win it. But the AVB gamble was ultimately unpunished and Friedel’s double-fisted response to the Lyon fans at the final whistle clearly felt like a vindication, given his two alert stops in the second half.

For the most part, an unexceptional but highly-organised Lyon sat back and looked to capitalise on set-pieces. Some of the early foul awards from the German referee were generous at best including the swan dive of the paper-ankled Lisandro Lopez that led to Lyon’s opener. As soon as the home side had their noses in front, they defended en masse and started to resemble a French version of Stoke City. The presence of Lyon striker Gomis, a Kenwyne Jones lookalike, did little to disprove the comparison.

The sight of Lyon players biting the turf was commonplace. Kyle Walker brushed Umtiti’s arm and the full-back collapsed like a malnourished Gillian McKeith. Walker was yellow carded for the challenge which would constitute mild foreplay in most bedrooms across Britain. But Spurs were too often toothless and bereft of creativity in the final third. A speculative Lewis Holtby shot that hit the post was a rare, incisive moment in the opening half. Lyon were exceptionally well-drilled. If only the French had shown such resistance between 1939-45. It would have saved a lot of trouble.

A sumptuous, swinging centre from Emmanuel Adebayor presented Gareth Bale with an excellent second half opportunity but he drilled agonisingly wide. As circumstances dictated, Spurs committed greater numbers forward and pushed gamely for the equaliser. A Bale free-kick was parried and the bar was clipped as Tottenham methodically cranked up the pressure. A Lyon tumble in the box after a Friedel miscalculation and recovery was thankfully waved away by the referee. In the absence of an extra striker, Dempsey and Sigurdsson were cast into the fray, but failed to conjure an opening and the Euro-prayer beads were out.

Suddenly, the exit door loomed for Spurs. But then out of nowhere Belgian wonder Dembele cut in from distance and powered a dramatic last minute equaliser (and winner on aggregate). Bollocks, the added fixture congestion means Tottenham are now destined for fifth.

Or maybe our co-efficient in next year’s Champions League has been significantly improved :). Both adventures continue.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Bale my Valentine

Sod a fistful of droopy roses and a half-eaten box of Milk Tray, the real romance was at White Hart Lane. Gareth Frank Bale was, again, the focus of a shower of manly lovehearts.

Two exocet free-kicks in first and second half stoppage time brought rare and delightful light to a mostly scrappy encounter. The Europa League dream continues for another week at least.

The decision to rest ‘sweeper keeper’ Hugo Lloris against his old club was predictable, but as disappointing for fans as for the ex-Lyon player. Goalkeeper is the one position where a rest is not required, especially given Spurs’ light schedule of two Europa League games in 16 days. It was a needless tinker by Andre Villas-Boas. I hope to see Lloris back on his old stomping ground in the second leg next week. He’ll be needed.

Lyon showed commendable defensive resolve and threatened rather than alarmed Spurs. They were good value for a draw before that man Bale wrote yet more headlines with his third free-kick goal in two games. Previously, every Spurs set-piece goal was synced with Halley’s Comet.

The home side often looked leaden in position as if no-one had told them they weren’t playing on the Sunday. With his wild new hairstyle, Emmanuel Adebayor resembled Chirpy’s crazed Togolese cousin. The unkempt strands of hair frequently found themselves in an offside position, but they did provide a much needed focal point for Spurs’ rare forays into the final third.

Early on, Lennon and Walker dovetailed efficiently and one surging Walker run and slotted pass picked out Bale perfectly with the net gaping like a Z-List Towie celebrity. Somehow he contrived to miss – clearly it was too close for a Gareth Bale goal.

The ball rarely left a packed midfield, but then as the first half drew to a close the Welsh maestro stroked in a precocious 36-yard free-kick to take the edge off Spurs nerves.

In the second half, Lyon responded well with a fierce Umtitti strike that left Brad Friedel looking more flatfooted than usual. Those unfortunate enough not to be at the game and with a faulty mute button were subjected to the inane ramblings of Clive Tyldesley and fake Irishman Andy Townsend. Tyldersley, who treats a Manchester United defeat like the passing of a terminally ill child, was hysterical on the Lyon equaliser.

Spurs looked off the pace and found it difficult to forge clearcut chances though veteran Friedel made a sharp save on the rare occasion where Lyon found space in the Spurs' rearguard.

Yet just when it seemed the game would peter out into a draw, Bale stepped up to steer another free kick ludicrously past Lyon keeper Vercoutre. He's so overrated.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The understated contribution of Michael Dawson

After his two-goal salvo against Newcastle, Gareth Bale inevitably stole the headlines, but further down the field another hero maintained a silently successful season. Michael Dawson is the antithesis of the modern footballer; you won’t find him stumbling out of a celebrity-endorsed nightspot or mocking opposing supporters, when the opportunity for ludicrous wages presented itself Dawson left his car keys by the door and chose to fight for his place.

The likeable defender’s Spurs career was inexplicably on the rocks in August. Uber-rich QPR had a bid accepted by Daniel Levy (ever the businessman when an over-the-odds offer is received), but unlike many of his peers Dawson turned his back on the money. Professional pride and ambition, and perhaps a love of Spurs, for once trumped the lure of multiple pound signs.

The majority of the Tottenham faithful were delighted by Dawson’s extended stay. There are few defenders better suited to an aerial bombardment against the likes of Stoke or Sunderland and Dawson’s cheerful and ever-gracious demeanour has always endeared him to fans of all ages. He’s also a bloody good defender.

But this season, in the face of intense competition and an initially sceptical new manager, Dawson has risen to the challenge and added new poise to his game. And his persistence has been rewarded. The outcast is now the Spurs captain redux.

In the under-the-radar, three-month run which has seen Tottenham lose only ONE league game (in injury time at Everton), Dawson has been a constant, seizing upon Younes Kaboul’s long-term injury, veteran William Gallas’ nagging fitness concerns and the greenness of emerging hope Steven Caulker. He has been the surprise star of Spurs’ revolving backline.

The stats stack up in Dawson’s favour. Spurs have yet to lose a Premier League game when he has started (7 wins 4 draws) and his record stands at 9-4-1 in the league games where he has featured - with the lone defeat as a sub in the 10-man loss at Arsenal which inexplicably kick-started the lilywhite season. Five goals have been conceded in Dawson’s last eight starts. Who needs a striker?

Dawson’s unheralded contribution illustrates how this over-achieving Spurs team is a sum of its parts. The phenomenal Bale is rightfully receiving plaudits as a world class player, but Aaron Lennon is in the form of his career, Hugo Lloris has been nothing short of cat-like between the sticks and Mousa Dembele has consigned the deft midfield promptings of Luka Modric to memory.

But for fine goalkeeping by Tim Krul and a touch of Bale profligacy, Tottenham’s latest victory would have been far more comfortable. Despite being haemorrhaged of midfielder enforcer Sandro, stalwart Kaboul and depth in the striker department due to Jermain Defoe’s injury and Emmanuel Adebayor’s absenteeism, Spurs have a four point cushion in fourth and are competing against limitless foreign billionaires and teams of more established pedigree.

And at the foundation of this success is the unsung Michael Dawson. The troubles of Loftus Road must seem a world away.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Je t'aime Burkina Faso, but have Spurs fans been ‘Levyed’?

Je t'aime Burkina Faso. The West African nation’s historic victory over Togo in the African Cup Of Nations meant that AWOL frontman Emmanuel Adebayor will shortly be on a plane home and Spurs finally have a ‘new’ striker at a price Daniel Levy will surely enjoy.

Another Gareth Bale wonderstrike earned a crucial 1-0 win over 10-man West Brom at The Hawthorns yet Jermain Defoe’s injury overshadowed proceedings and left our Champions League chasers without a fit frontman in the matchday squad. The Bale reliant Spurs currently have less strikers than the Kensington Miners Union.

The failure to secure Leandro Damaio (or any competent striker on loan) during the recent transfer window was always likely to bite Spurs in the behind. Tottenham’s ‘partnership’ with Internacional is as meaningful as a relationship on ‘The Jeremy Kyle Show’. If Daniel Levy is unable to broker a deal with an alleged partner club over three transfer windows then perhaps a change of target is advisable. Offering £13 million for Damaio is like offering Scarlett Johansson a date at Chicken Cottage and being shocked at the rejection.

Was this an(other) elaborate smokescreen? The Joao Moutinho deal crumbled on inadequately filed paperwork in the summer and Andre Villas-Boas’ admiration (borderline love) for the Portuguese playmaker is well known. So if everything was agreed in principle several months ago why did August’s ‘done deal’ fail to materialise in the following window? The club is, of course, comfortably in the black in its transfer dealings over the last three windows. Repeat quietly three times, Tottenham Hotspur are owned by an investment company.

Opinions vary, but the conspiracy theorist in me always wonders why these big deals fail to materialise while the exit door remains joyfully open to the detriment of the squad. AVB thankfully blocked Gylfi Sigurdsson’s surprise £10million sale to Reading, but what if those incoming funds had been immediately reinvested in the purchase of Damaio? Tottenham would undoubtedly be in a stronger position - one might think a celebrated deal broker might spot such an opportunity.

I have no problem with Levy opting not to spend frivolous cash, but equally he must be realistic about where Tottenham will finish without reasonable investment. Sixth place is arguably par for our club. We cannot compete with the financial firepower of Manchester City or Chelsea or the sheer size of Manchester United. Arsenal may be weakening but those South London nomads have been rooted in the top four since the 1990s while fallen giants Liverpool do not seem to suffer ENIC’s recent investment allergy, having spent heavily on Daniel Sturridge (a striker – they exist) and the talented but unproven Philippe Coutinho.

For all its attacking qualities, this is not a free-scoring Tottenham team. The fitness of Defoe and motivation of Adebayor will dictate whether Spurs have enough to inch over the Champions League line. The failure to strengthen a weak striking corps is a considerable gamble and one that in the last two January windows has failed to pay off.

There is always a first time.