Saturday, March 20, 2010

Tottenham Hotspur Dispatch Stoke, Take Vital Lead in Race for Fourth

Tottenham Hotspur traveled to the Britannia Stadium, a graveyard for many teams, and after a professional display, beat Stoke City 2-1 to cement their place in fourth with just eight games to go.

Spurs had set down a marker in August, signaling their Champions League ambitions by winning their first four games of the season. That was the last time that Spurs had taken maximum points four games in a row...

Now that the race for fourth is entering its final straight, a win over Stoke at the Britannia was going to be vital if they wanted to have a say. Win and Spurs would move four points ahead of rivals Liverpool, and five ahead of Aston Villa.

Looking at Tottenham's fixture list with games to play against Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City, and Arsenal coming up and anything less than a win would leave Spurs' hopes of finishing fourth an uphill challenge.

As expected, Stoke's main weapon was Rory Delap's long throws, and all of their forward attacks in the first half were from the arms of the Irishman.

However, this Spurs side are extremely big, and led by the excellent Michael Dawson, they dealt with these set pieces quite easily.

Tottenham for the most part were very patient, keeping the ball for long periods of play, forcing the home crowd to boo every pass in an effort at putting Spurs' players' concentration off.

Roman Pavlyuchenko was forced off midway through the first half after jarring his knee in a tackle with Abdoulaye Faye.

The Russian forward is the most in-form striker in the English Premier League at the moment, and it was a real blow to Harry Redknapp when he limped off, to be replaced with Eidur Gudjohnsen.

A professional Spurs saw out the half despite a set-piece flurry from Stoke, and then started the second half in spectacular fashion.

Peter Crouch's perfect lobbed pass found Gudjohnsen in yards of space as he raced into the Stoke box and he fired high into the net to put Tottenham in front.

It was Gudjohnsen's first Premiership goal in over four years. And it meant that Stoke now had a large hill to climb if they wanted to have a say in this match.

That hill became a mountain for Stoke minutes later, when Dean Whitehead was unluckily sent off after receiving a second yellow card.

Luka Modric had flicked the ball past the ex-Sunderland midfielder who could not get out of the way and the little Croatian smashed into him.

Stoke have always been linked with a physical approach to the game, and it is something that many struggle to understand.

While some feel that it only encompasses the Potters kicking teams, it is in reality as scientific as any other approach to the game.

Under Tony Pulis, Stoke have become an incredibly tough team to beat. They harry every player, mark supremely tightly, and generally choose their challenges well. The exception to the rule being Ryan Shawcross' poor challenge on Aaron Ramsey.

Spurs went in search of a second and really pressured Stoke, but all that good work was undone when Benoit Assou-Ekotto pulled Dave Kitson over in the box and gave away a penalty.

Ex-Tottenham player Matthew Etherington, doing his late call up chances for England no harm,fired in the equalizer from the spot.

Minutes earlier, Spurs had been wondering how many goals they were going to win the game by, and in the blink of an eye they were level, battling a fervent Stoke.

It summed their season up perfectly. While Spurs have improved leaps and bounds under Redknapp, they still have that incredibly soft underbelly and lack concentration when it is needed most.

All of a sudden, ten man Stoke were on top and all of Tottenham's frailties looked like being exposed.

Just when Harry Redknapp and Spurs fans everywhere began to scratch their heads at what looked like another one of those days, Niko Kranjcar popped in to score a fantastic goal.

The goal combined everything that has always been associated with Tottenham over the year. Power, pace, pin point passing, and intelligence.

Benoit Assou Ekotto made amends for his dreadful defending by powering down the left, his run left the Stoke defence very flat-footed, and his pin point pass to Gudjohnsen was laser like in precision.

But just as everyone expected the Icelandic international to latch onto the ball, he dummied it perfectly and left it for the onrushing Kranjcar to score.

The dummy caught every Stoke player out and made the job of scoring all the easier for the brilliant Croatian.

For the first half of the season, Spurs were overreliant on Aaron Lennon. The phenomenally quick right-sided midfielder was in the form of his life before a groin injury robbed Tottenham and England of his services.

His importance and the lack of penetration on the left, had left Spurs as an easy team to neutralise. But a combination of injuries has all of a sudden left Spurs with possibly the best left-side combination in the Premier League.

For all too long, Gareth Bale was a player who threatened to become a good one. He is blessed with every attribute a leading player would want, but lacked that vital spark. However, since Christmas, something has changed.

With Assou-Ekotto and Bale on the left, Spurs possess two players who are excellent defenders, but who are also brilliant going forward.

Today, Bale and his Cameroonian teammate caused Stoke all kinds of problems, leaving many to wonder what Spurs will be like when Lennon eventually returns from injury?

In the end, Spurs had to endure a late onslaught, and you know what? They actually knew how to handle the situation. It was a very important win for Spurs, who have the toughest of remaining fixtures when it comes to all the teams going for fourth place.

A fourth win in a row for the first time since August and Spurs are now in the driving seat to finish fourth.

This win leaves them four points ahead of Liverpool who travel to United tomorrow, five points ahead of Villa and Manchester City, who they have yet to play.

Are Spurs finally growing into a good team? We will see in eight weeks' time...