Monday, April 16, 2007

Spurs’ Players ‘Bottled it’ in their ‘Big’ Games

Time for Spurs to Show their Worth against Arsenal

So near and yet so far could be the epitaph for Spurs’ season. It, like last season, will be remembered, if it is, for the ‘nearly’ achievements. Carling Cup semi-final defeat after extra time in the second leg, FA Cup quarter-final defeat after a replay and a single goal aggregate defeat in the UEFA Cup Quarter-final tie. Compared with Spurs’ record over the last number of seasons that is some progress but when it came to those ‘big’ games the players lost their nerve.

In both of the domestic Cups they held a two goal lead but against Arsenal the departure of Dimitar Berbatov early in the game through injury saw Spurs’ former confidence drain away and the Arsenal youngsters were able to impose themselves on the game and ultimately on the tie. ‘Disappointed,’ said the players, ‘we don’t want that to happen again, we’ve learned from that.’

And so for the FA Cup 6th Round game against Chelsea, the players were up for that game and took Chelsea by surprise. A lethargic Chelsea were trailing 1-3 at half-time and even in the second half as Jose Mourinho threw on striker after striker in an attempt to rescue the situation, Spurs had the chances to put the result beyond doubt. The substitution of Berbatov again proved costly as Spurs lost their threat in attack and Chelsea eventually scored the goal which gave them the hope of a comeback. Sure enough, having scored one the equaliser soon followed. Chelsea had rescued the situation and going to White Hart Lane wasn’t a problem to them. So it proved in the replay, Chelsea contained and two moments of magic secured the game. The Spurs’ players once again had failed to produce their best when it really mattered.

The UEFA Cup quarter-final draw produced another difficult game for Spurs. Sevilla, the Cup holders and the team challenging Barcelona for the Spanish Liga title would be the most difficult opponents that Tottenham would have to face in their European journey this season.

However, it would be different this time.

Jermaine Jenas commenting before the first leg game in Sevilla,

‘You get nothing for reaching quarter-finals or semi-finals. You go home, you are out and you have to watch others play in the final and lift the cup. It’s not a nice feeling and it’s not something we want to continue. If you look at the teams we lost to [in the cups], it has been Arsenal and Chelsea, two of the top three or four sides in England. It was devastating to lose those games. But now, it’s up to us to make that step and beat those sides so we are able to break through into finals and so on. We definitely have the talent.’

That was good to hear from a Tottenham perspective, the players realised that they had to raise their game for these important matches.

In Sevilla, Spurs were unfortunate that a refereeing decision preventing them from building on the excellent start given to them by Robbie Keane’s early goal. The penalty award set Spurs back and rejuvenated the home team and for the rest of the first half Spurs appeared to be in shock. The half-time interval allowed them to regain their composure and re-organise so that they finished the game well although unable to score a second goal.

A single goal deficit going into the second leg at home was acceptable. Tottenham knew exactly what was needed. However, within seven minutes that was shattered and Spurs’ European dream was over. The two quick goals midway through the second half didn’t alter the course of the game as Sevilla with Tottenham old boy, Fredi Kanoute, qualified comfortably.

In spite of Jenas’ words, once again the Spurs’ players failed to rise to the occasion and produce a performance worthy of the occasion. The Sevilla players were much quicker to the ball and prepared to battle together for the result. They started quicker and Spurs were caught cold and never recovered from it.

This has been the case for Tottenham over many seasons. Their record against the top four sides is abysmal – the only light in this darkness was the unexpected home win over Chelsea in the Premiership earlier this year. Every year Manchester United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool brush them aside as of little consequence. Other teams achieve unexpected wins over the top clubs. Bolton have been a regular thorn in the flesh for all the top sides for a number of seasons, Portsmouth have done it as well and West Ham United, this season fighting against relegation have achieved their second successive away win against Arsenal having already beaten them and Manchester United at Upton Park earlier in the season. So of their meagre total of twenty nine points, West Ham have earned nine of them with wins against two of the top four sides while Spurs have taken three points. The Spurs players have failed to raise their game for season after season – regardless of who is playing – there is an obvious lack of believe at the club and an acceptance of being second best.

Martin Jol talks of the players showing a ‘winning mentality’ but it is lacking when faced with the top sides. A lack of leadership and drive on the field is evident with Spurs needing the fighting qualities displayed over many years by former captains, Steve Perryman, Graham Roberts, Alan Mullery and Dave Mackay.

How would the Spurs players respond to the management style displayed by Sir Alex Ferguson or Roy Keane? Is life too easy at White Hart Lane? If Spurs are to get into the elite of the Premiership a few feathers may have to be ruffled at the club. The summer transfer market shopping list should include that aggressive, combative type of player who ill inspire those around him to greater effort and won’t accept excuses for missed opportunities. Such qualities don’t exist within the players currently at the club so someone is required who will set the example, set the standards and discipline that are necessary to make this forward step.

As Jamie Carragher said when questioned about Liverpool’s Cup defeats to Arsenal earlier in the season, ‘We need better players.’ That certainly is the case where Spurs are concerned with players who can take the pressure of the ‘big’ games and produce their best performances when they’re most needed and when faced with the highest level of opposition.

Spurs’ next game is against Arsenal at White Hart Lane. The supporters will be ready for the game but will the players? They know what a North London derby means to the supporters but will they produce a performance on the day or will it again be a case of almost but not quite good enough?


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