It was perhaps a bit too much to expect that the lads could shake off the effects of the dreaded Europa Plague – sorry, I mean League – and summon sufficient energy and wit to overcome the Premiership Champions-in-waiting on Sunday. And, had we done so, as I said in my previous article a few days back, the Capital One Cup would most definitely have been a poisoned chalice, conferring, as it does, automatic qualification for next season’s Europa Lurgi – sorry, I mean League – on the holders.
I was actually at the game on Sunday, courtesy of my son, who’d shelled out £200 for two tickets for us as a 61st birthday present for me. Now is not the time to dwell on what you get for such an eye-watering amount in the corporate seats at Wembley these days (a padded seat and inadequate toilet facilities for men of my age who like a drink, as far as I could tell). I’m probably out of touch with what passes for an eye-watering amount for a ticket in modern-day football anyway (Do season-ticket holders now have to have HSBC Swiss bank accounts?) and I’m sure younger readers won’t want to hear me going on about how you could queue up on the day and get in to see the Spurs of Greaves, Gilzean, Mackay, Jennings etc. play the United of Best, Law and Charlton, have a three-course meal and still have change out of an old two bob (10p in today’s money) pieceback in the 1960s. Let’s dwell instead on the game itself.
Watching the game ‘in the flesh’ gives you a different perspective (quite literally) to the all-seeing eye of TV coverage. Of course, this can mean you moan and groan about referee’s decisions that are subsequently shown on TV highlights to have been be correct or fail to fully grasp what has happened first time around (I thought Lloris had been cheaply beaten by Costa’s second-half strike and had no idea it had been so heavily deflected, for example) but it can equally sometimes give you a chance to have a deeper look at a particular player, or part of the team, than TV coverage allows. Thus, in the first half, being behind and up to the left of the goal we were defending, I got a pretty good look at our defence. And I’m glad I did, as, judging by some of the reports in my own newspaper of choice (The Guardian )on Monday, I’m not entirely convinced their experts were at the same game.
Overall, it was hard to disagree with their general summing up; namely that Chelsea are very talented, experienced, organised and mean-spirited defence-wise and rarely allow anyone, let alone such a young, and probably tired, team such as ours, to recover from a two-goal deficit and that we floundered in ‘the final third’, as modern-day pundits like to call a certain part of the pitch, when required to chase the game, to the extent that the last half hour was played out with an air of inevitability about whose name was going to be on the trophy.
Where our opinions diverge drastically, however, is in the matter of player-ratings. While probably getting it right in giving Danny Rose 7 out of 10, just giving young Eric Dier4/10, and Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen only 5/10 apiece? Come on. I don’t recall Lloris having a shot to save prior to their goal late in the first half and only a couple in total, having been beaten only by two cruel deflections. How can it be possible, if our defence was so poor, that they were able to restrict a team with the likes of Costa, Hazard, Willian and Fabregas to such a low return?
For my money, apart from the first 10 minutes, before we woke up, Chelsea only began to play with any authority once they had the cushion of a two-goal lead, which, considering some of the performances we’ve put up against them in the last few seasons, is testament to an improvement in our fitness and, more importantly, mentality, not to mention Pochettino’s willingness to put his trust in a number of young players. I thought that Walker had Hazard, one of the Premiership’s best players this season, in his pocket for much of the game and, possible lateness in closing Costa down for their second goal apart, he seems, since returning from injury, to have improved his decision-making and largely eliminated the stupid errors he had previously been prone to.Dier, I felt, did very well against Costa, who is an aggressive beast (and I mean that as a compliment) of a player who troubled the best defences of Europe last year and has been prolific in the Premiership this season.Vertonghen seems to have returned to something like the form he had a couple of seasons ago when we first signed him, albeit without the goals he scored then – calm, skilful and authorative (we can forgive him last Thursday’s aberration in Florence). Danny Rose played well, deserving his 7/10, though consistency remains a very real issue with him, as it does with his rival for the position, Davies, and this remains a problem position for us, I feel.
As for the rest of our team, in midfield, Bentaleb has been a revelation in recent weeks. He showed potential last year but, while, displaying admirable confidence in protecting the ball for such a young man, his default mode was sideways or backwards passing and I was critical then, as were many other fans, not so much of him but of Tim Sherwood’s evident obsession with playing him in every game and not giving him the rest and protection that his tender years warranted. As this season has worn on he has not only protected the ball well but added a desire and ability to go forward. He showed great confidence on the ball against Chelsea ( I barely knew Fabregas was playing ) and was also impressive in the way he reacted to Costa sticking his hand in his face – squaring up to him rather than rolling over as if he’d been shot in an effort to get him sent off, as some players would have done. (And talking of rolling over, for some reason, I can’t help thinking of poor Willian, who seemingly found it very difficult to stand up when any Spurs player invaded his personal space).
As for the others, Mason offers a lot of energy and a willingness to go forward but needs to put in some shooting practice if he’s going to develop into a top class midfielder. I’ve already devoted a whole article to Harry Kane this year, so no need to go there, other than to note that,while he struggled to impose himself in this game, apart from the excellent mazy run that drew the foul that so nearly resulted in another Eriksen special, he never stops working and making defenders work. He’s already some player and, if he can add a bit more aerial power when jumping with his back to defenders (maybe he needs to learn to rough them up a bit the way Berbatov used to), he’ll be even better. Eriksen has looked a bit below par recently, and, unlike many pundits, I thoughtPocchettino was right to rest him recently. The free kick apart, he struggled to impose himself,too. We need him back on top form soon. Chadli huffed and puffed tolittle effect and needs to rediscover his shooting boots and up his game, otherwise he’s just another who flatters to deceive. Also, his stupid, unnecessary grab on a Chelsea player going nowhere on the touchline late in the first half ultimately cost us the crucial first goal.
And then we come to the enigma that is Andros Townsend. Why is it, I wonder, that a player who can play effectively, with a goal threat, for England, cannot replicate it in a Spurs shirt? If you are a pacy winger you have got to be able to at least create some chances, not to mention, ideally, also taking a few yourself. Sadly, in a Spurs shirt, he regularly does neither, just running up and down the right wing going through his full repertoire of skills, namely the little half-arsed Cryff turn to go outside on his right foot andthe dummy to cut in on his left before giving the ball away. OK, he’s shown the bottle to take a few crucial penalties for us but, sadly, that apart, he’s been given so many chances and failed to produce and this game was just another. Even more sadly, record-signing Erik Lamela hasn’t exactly shown himself consistently to be a better option yet, so, like left back, this remains a problem position.
As I said earlier, once we went two goals down, we never really looked like getting back into it. Not being over-awed, not giving up and getting hammered four or five nil, though, and keeping going to the last, is a sign of continued progress. We have no other distractions now until the end of the season. If we are serious about going for fourth place we need a home win against Swansea on Wednesday – no excuses. We need Eriksen back on top form and more from whoever plays out of Chadli, Lamela, Townsend and Dembele and a settled defence who can eliminate the odd lapses of concentration that have made us have to chase so many games. If, as I suspect, Liverpool and Arsenal, who both now seem to be achieving the consistency needed, fill third and fourth places ( Southampton are in a downward spiral and Man. Utd surely can’t keep fluking the results their performances don’t merit, can they? Oh, sorry, they’re Man. Utd., of course they can!) then another season of the Europa Aaaaaargh – sorry, I mean League – looms for us. This would be a great shame but at least, at last, there are real signs of progress. Maybe we can become another team who can prove Alan Hansen wrong and win something with kids.
STOP PRESS: I wrote most of this article on Monday and awoke today to the news of the death of Dave Mackay, who I’d mentioned above when reminiscing about our 60s team. He deserves a whole article to himself but I’d just like to quickly say here that he was a fantastic player – tough as old boots and brave as a lion ( you have to be to come back twice from a broken leg) but extraordinarily skilful too. And what a leader – no wonder Brian Clough bought him when he was considered to be in the twilight of his playing career and gambled – correctly, as it turned out – that he was the man to lift his Derby team out of the old 2nd Division and into the 1st and no surprise, too, that he was the only manager big enough tofill Cloughie’s boots after the latter was forced out at Derby, going on to lift another league title with them. An absolute legend. RIP.
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