Whilst it might be an old cliché, you simply never know what you’re going to get as a supporter of Tottenham Hotspur. For the umpteenth time in my 20 years of being a fan, a supposedly straightforward task proved to be anything but in Switzerland as Young Boys provided a far tougher opponent than anticipated, most notably in a frantic opening half an hour that seemed to close the curtains on our Champions League dreams. However, in spite of a shocking start and poor performance in general, goals from Bassong and Pavlyuchenko dampened the spirit of the home fans at the Stade de Suisse and will prove to be crucial if we are able to rescue the tie at White Hart Lane next Wednesday.
Much of the pre-match discussion revolved around team selection, and whilst many fans called for rotation, it still seemed slightly surprising to see Harry and his staff tamper with the side that tore through Manchester City in the opening game of the season. In addition to the anticipated swap of Bassong and King, Dos Santos, Palacios and Pavlyuchenko were installed in place of Lennon, Huddlestone and Crouch, and the new look side were nearly punished in the opening minutes as Young Boys winger Senad Lulic skipped passed Palacios and drilled a shot against the foot of Gomes’ right hand post. In spite of this warning, the Spurs players still seemed half asleep and fell behind on five minutes as Lulic found the opposite corner with his second chance, pouncing first onto a loose ball as Thierry Doubai’s shot from range struck Ammar Jemal on the back. Although Jemal appeared to be slightly offside as Doubai pulled the trigger, Lulic’s speed of thought was indicative of the way in which both sides had started the game; whilst the Swiss underdogs seemed full of energy, Spurs fans were left with that familiar feeling of watching their side struggle in a match that they had been dubbed as strong favourites for.
Our immediate response to the goal was positive. Both Dos Santos and Defoe may have done better when offered a good sight of goal, particularly the Mexican who seemed to lose balance as he opened his body to curl the ball into the far corner; with the ball slipping slightly away from him, he was only able to drag his shot into the grateful body of the Young Boys keeper. Although we created chances, it was impossible to overlook how shaky we seemed to be on the ball, and this was summed up five minutes later as we conceded what can only be described as a horror goal. Not for the first or last time on the night, Pavlyuchenko was far too casual in possession and gifted it to the seemingly omnipresent Doubai. As Palacios came across to cover, the ball appeared to ricochet off of the Young Boys midfielder and fly into a gaping hole behind our back four. With the defence pushed high up the pitch, Henri Bienvenu was able to charge past the leaden-footed Dawson, carry the ball toward the edge of the area and slide if past the onrushing Gomes. Two-nil. Wow. What on Earth is going on?
In all honesty we looked utterly shell-shocked, and our defensive shape as a team was causing us all sorts of problems. One thing that has been extremely noticeable about our best performances of 2010 has been the way in which we have defended; two narrow banks of four have encouraged the opponents to attack down our flanks and no space has been allowed to the creative players in front of our back-line. However, with Palacios chasing opposing midfielders deep into their own half and Dos Santos drifting constantly away from his wing, we had no real shape off the ball and were yet again exposed after 28 minutes, this time with a through ball from Costanzo which surprised Bassong and found Hochstrasser who hammered the ball past Gomes to seemingly complete our Champions League nightmare.
Changes were required, and to his immense credit Redknapp made his first substitution after half an hour as Huddlestone replaced Ekotto, who had what can only be described as ‘one of his games’. The presence of a true ball-player on the pitch made an immediate difference and we were able to settle into a much better rhythm. Although we didn’t create many clear openings, our increased control of the ball seemed to push our opponents back slightly and we struck a crucial blow on 42 minutes as Bassong towered above his marker and slammed a header into the top corner from Bale’s out-swinging corner. As well as the quality of the defender’s finish, it is worth noting that every one of Bale’s set pieces this season so far have been well delivered which is great to see. Despite one of the poorest performances I have ever seen from Spurs, we were back in the tie as the half-time whistle blew, which I’m sure many of us didn’t envisage after falling three goals behind.
Although more half-time changes were required, the enforced substitution of Modric with a groin strain was a real shame, as the little Croatian was the only player in white who wanted the ball in the first half until the arrival of Huddlestone. His replacement Kranjcar looked lively in the opening exchanges however, and good link up with both Huddlestone and Bale led to the creation of a number of spurned half chances, most notably by the misfiring Pavlyuchenko. In spite of our better performance however, we still lacked that familiar spark and good work from the Young Boys midfield succeeded in closing down the space in front of their defence and limit the chances that we were able to create after a bright start to the second period. In truth, the 20 minutes after the passing of the hour mark were best spent behind the sofa as Bienvenu and Schneuwly twice wasted glorious chances to end the tie. Sadly we were again the makers of our own downfall with these opportunities as the Swiss side almost capitalised on a combination of crazy passing from Palacios, poor positioning from Dawson and lightening fast counter-attacks that left us wildly exposed at the back.
And then, as if by magic, we scored a truly stunning goal. With Sky commentators Bill Leslie and Alan Smith politely reminding us that we were in trouble for the hundredth time in the second half, Corluka swept a fine ball into Pavlyuchenko who dummied the pass into the feet of substitute Robbie Keane who had replaced the injured but nonetheless disappointing Defoe. With by far his most meaningful touch of the match, the Irishman perfectly weighted a pass into Pavlyuchenko’s stride. As every viewer in the world looked across the box to check who was running in, the mercurial Russian decided, for no apparent reason, to smash the leather off the ball from a pretty crazy angle. I’m still not quite sure why he chose the option of a shot, but the ball flew emphatically into the roof of the net and we had saved ourselves. How I would have loved to see the look on Alan Smith’s face at that moment. With ten minutes to go, it seemed like we were going to push on for an equaliser, and whilst in the short-term it was disappointing to see us settle for a one goal defeat, that our players celebrated at the sound of the full-time whistle suggested a confidence in the team that they could turn this result around at White hart Lane next week.
Overall, it is difficult to be too disappointed with the way the night ended. Although at 7:30 it would have seemed crazy to be happy with a defeat, the near-harrowing scenes of the first half an hour meant that any improvement on a three-goal deficit should be seen as a positive overall outcome to the night. Whilst BBLG concludes his write-ups with his Man and Moment of the Match, I will be ending my reports with my top three observations of the games that I’m reporting on. With regard to last night, they are:-
1) Tom Huddlestone has cemented his position as an indispensable player in the team, whilst Palacios has gone from Mr. Reliable to someone I get genuinely worried about when on the ball; although he might be labelled as our only defensive midfielder, his lack of positional discipline means we actually defend far better as a unit when he is not in the side.
2) We must not fall into the trap of underestimating our opposition and rotating the side against supposedly weaker team.
3) Plastic pitches should be banned from the Champions League. This has nothing to do with our performance last night as that was indefensible and professionals should be able to adapt to all conditions, but it doesn’t seem right that we were unable to use players like King, Huddlestone and Lennon from the start because they might get injured on the surface. Had those three players been in the side for 90 minutes last night, I’d have been mightily surprised to see us put in a showing like that, especially in the first half hour.
Next up for the boys is Stoke at the Britannia Stadium on Saturday before what could be another glorious night at White Hart Lane next Wednesday night.