Following defeat to Chelsea 12 days ago, I wrote an article of ‘Embarrassment’ and Tim Sherwood spoke of the lack of character or ‘dependables’ within the squad and demanded a reaction. Despite plunging further into doom and gloom in the first leg against Benfica our two performances since then, against Arsenal and the return vs Benfica have been rather more encouraging; albeit still in ultimate defeat in one and elimination in the other.
Both performances have come with somewhat weakened teams, especially in Portugal, where players on the fringes have really stood up and been counted. The players seem to have responded to Sherwood’s words post-Chelsea, and it is those ‘squad players’ who have responded well and done the club proud with two fighting performances. The Arse were lucky, they got away with it, a performance systematic of our season; controlling of ball and game but not taking our chances when they came. Tough luck. Benfica tonight meanwhile was different, whilst we started well and had the better of the play to the half hour mark when Benfica scored; the reaction, yes a late one, but a reaction nevertheless, saw us for once play fast, attractive and direct and thus we caused them real problems and probably should have forced extra time. If only we could recreate these last ten minutes in Lisbon more often….
Two players that have really stood out for me in our last two performances, are two that often get overlooked or slated; they aren’t fan favourites but do have potential. Firstly; Nabil Bentaleb, whom I believe is often somewhat unfairly rated. He has arguably been one of the more consistent performers since breaking through to the team, and he does seem to care; he’ll put his foot in, run around, and after all he is only 19. Admittedly, he seems to do a lot of nothing much; neither playing killer balls nor running at opponents but he does do well defensively. Personally, I think he certainly warrants a place over Paulinho in the starting XI currently, for he has quite frankly been awful after a promising opening two months. Does the price tag in a perverse way protect the Brazilian? Maybe so but he has to perform better. Back to Bentaleb anyhow; he’s 19 and has great potential, yes Sherwood clearly loves him, and perhaps he needs to be careful not to over use the kid but so far he’s stood up to the Premier League and Europa League well; none more so than against Benfica today where quite frankly, he was superb- showing he can play at the top level.
Secondly, a mention for Nacer Chadli. He had a tough start at Spurs, not really influencing the games when he had the chance at the start of the season, when he was starting regularly. This led to many taking an immediate poor opinion of him since then, and like Bentaleb has been the regular jab-taker and often scapegoat over social media. However, following injury, Chadli has returned under Sherwood and looked fitter and more confident, and thus we are beginning to see little sparkles of what he’s capable of with goals against Newcastle and tonight in Lisbon. Yes, he also missed two sitters against some team in red on Sunday but that happens. He’s played well since returning, and if he can become more consistent and at 24 there is still progressing for him to do yet, he could become quite a player; after all he has all the physical attributes (pace, strength etc.). I just hope he remains fit and seemingly most importantly confident, and then he can begin to win more fans over.
So indeed, we are out of the Europa League, and well off the Champions League now, but there is some solace to be found in defeat. Sherwood asked for a response, he got it, and now we must continue in a positive light, and use the end of this season to build confidence, character and a foundation for next.
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