Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spurs' Season Ends in Europa League

Late on Saturday evening, 19th May, the protracted finale to Spurs' season drew to a close when Didier Drogba scored the winning penalty in the Champions League Final shoot-out and so condemned Spurs to the 'third' class European experience of next season's Europa League.

Since the closing day of the previous season it has been a roller-coaster of an existence for Tottenham Hotspur, with many ups and downs and unexpected twists along the way.

'Luka Modric Saga'
Tottenham fans spent last summer fed on a diet of speculation and media rumour of the imminent departure of midfielder, Luka Modric, with Chelsea regularly offering increased bids for his services. Daniel Levy was playing 'hard ball' and refusing to negotiate, insisting that Modric would be remaining at White Hart Lane, but we'd all heard that before.

Poor Start to the season
Spurs made a late start to the season due to the postponement of their first match against Everton because of the riots in London and the damage that had been done in Tottenham.  Then, with their only new signing, Brad Friedel making his debut at Old Trafford, the two Manchester clubs swept Spurs aside with Friedel conceding eight goals in those opening games.  Meanwhile, Spurs had progressed to the Group stages of the Europa League which the manager regarded as an unnecessary obstacle to his main aim of achieving Champions League qualification.

On the resumption of the season after the international break, Spurs had strengthened their squad with the acquisition of two late signings, Scott Parker from West Ham United and Emmanuel Adebayor on loan from Manchester City while retaining the services of Modric.  The debutants immediately had an impressive influence on the team who won at Molineux with Adebayor scoring his first goal.  That was the start of an eleven match undefeated run in the League, as Spurs climbed to third place in late November with a comfortable home win over Aston Villa.  Spurs produced many outstanding performances in that sequence with a four goal success over Liverpool at White Hart Lane, fighting performances at Fulham and West Bromwich where they came from a goal down to win in the Midlands.  Many of the home wins were comfortable with Spurs settling for two or three goals when with clinical finishing they could have boosted their goal tally.  The triumph over Arsenal was particularly special for Kyle Walker who impressed in his first full season in the team with his attacking prowess and his shot from twenty five yards proved to be the winner, his first for Spurs.

A late equaliser by Newcastle at St James' Park was the only blemish on the perfect record but at the time the Geordies were unbeaten in the League.  Through this time, to rest his first team players,  Harry Redknapp had used squad players and young professionals in the Carling Cup and Europa League.  They acquitted themselves well but lost in a penalty shoot-out at Stoke in the Carling Cup after a goalless two hours.  At the half-way stage of the Europa League, Spurs headed their group.

Stoke City
Spurs' undefeated run came to an unexpected and abrupt end at the Brittania Stadium when a poor first half defensive display enabled Stoke to take a two goal lead.  Any chance of a Spurs recovery in the second half was thwarted by an inept display of refereeing by Chris Foy and his assistants.  They disallowed a good goal scored by Adebayor, ignored a number of genuine penalty appeals and gave Stoke the freedom to employ rough-house tactics to deny Spurs at set-pieces.  As one report at the time said, 'the Stoke defenders, having conceded one penalty, felt able to employ such tactics, secure in the belief that the referee wouldn't award Spurs another penalty.'

Early Europa League Exit
Two consecutive defeats, in Russia against Ruban Kazan while Harry Redknapp was absent, recovering from heart surgery, and at home to PAOK Salonika, left Spurs reliant on a favourable result in Greece while they had to defeat Shamrock Rovers by five goals in the final game.  Spurs scored four with Harry Kane scoring his first senior goal but exited the tournament before Christmas, allowing Redknapp and his team to concentrate on their goal of Champions League football.

Title Contenders
Spurs recovered from their Stoke set-back with a hard earned home win over Sunderland when substitute, Roman Pavlyuchenko, came off the bench to score the winner, which would prove to be his last League goal for Tottenham, ahead of a January transfer.  Mixed results and performances over the holiday period resulted in a home draw with Chelsea when Spurs scored early but then allowed the visitors back into the game.  Having said that, Adebayor had another goal ruled out incorrectly and it took a goal-line clearance by John Terry in the final moments to preserve the visitors' point.

An outstanding display at Norwich where Gareth Bale scored twice having been given a freer role in the team was followed by a point at Swansea when the home team scored a late equaliser.  Then followed a sequence of four consecutive home League and Cup matches in early January.  Roy Hodgson's defensively minded West Brom, Cheltenham in the FA Cup and Everton all left White Hart Lane defeated.

The win over Everton took Spurs level on points with Manchester United and only three behind the leaders, Manchester City, and with a gap of eight points to Chelsea in fourth with Arsenal a further point behind.  Newspaper and media talk was of  Tottenham as 'title contenders', not something many Spurs fans have experienced in recent times.

Football Can be So Cruel
The 'title contenders' tag didn't sit easily with Spurs and was very short lived as Wolves took a point from them at the Lane in the next game with a goal scored from a corner that should not have been awarded and then benefited as Adebayor had a third goal disallowed for offside when he was clearly on-side.

The next game took Spurs to the Etihad Stadium and after conceding two goals in three minutes in the second half, immediately recovered to score twice in five minutes, with all the goals coming in a nine minute spell.  Spurs were finishing the stronger and had the opportunity to score a winner in added time but Jermain Defoe, just failed to get proper contact on Bale's cross.  City then scored from a penalty to deprive Spurs of even one point.  It was after this match that I received a text saying, 'Football can be so cruel' and over the next few months that statement proved to be very true from a Spurs' perspective.

The Monday following that game, Harry Redknapp's court case commenced, so reports about Spurs appeared on both the back and front pages of the papers.  Spurs managed to progress to the 5th Round of the FA Cup with an unimpressive win at Watford and then defeated bottom club Wigan at White Hart Lane.  Redknapp had to make a quick journey from court to the ground to attend both matches but at the Wigan game, the supporters showed tremendous support for their manager.  The transfer window closed with Spurs acquiring Louis Saha and Ryan Nelsen, while Pavlyuvchenko was sold and Corluka, Pienaar and Townsend going out on loan.  A weakened team drew at Liverpool while Redknapp was in London but after a great defensive performance, in the final minutes, Spurs had the best chance of the game to take the three points.

The innocent verdict was announced and a few hours later Redknapp became the focus of morer media headlines - 'Redknapp to Manage England' - as the Football Association and Fabio Capello parted company.  Redknapp was the overwhelming favourite of the popular press and it appeared to be only a matter of time before he would be approached.  In an amazing performance against Newcastle United, Emmanuel Adebayor created four goals and scored himself as the supporters again backed Redknapp.  Spurs were on a high and had opened a ten point gap on Chelsea and Arsenal.  It seemed that the departure of Redknapp to manage England might be the only blot on the landscape.

After struggling at Stevenage in the Cup, Spurs went to the Emirates and were two up after thirty four minutes which would have put them thirteen points ahead of their neighbours if they had maintained that result.  Arsenal, however, scored twice in three minutes before half-time and Spurs never recovered, conceding another three in the second half. 

A home defeat to Manchester United followed and Spurs apparently secure hold on third place in the League was slipping.  A defeat at Everton and a home draw with Stoke meant they dropped to fourth and in the nine matches after defeating Newcastle, they only picked up six points with the defeat at QPR seeing them in fifth place.  Through this two month period, while progressing in the Cup to the semi-finals, the team managed only one win against Swansea but for the rest of the time there was no-one, either player or management who was capable of inspiring and lifting them from this decline.  Prior to the loss at Loftus Road, they lost heavily to Chelsea at Wembley and suffered another refereeing injustice when a 'phantom' goal, was awarded to give Chelsea a two goal advantage, when the ball clearly did not cross the line.

Late Revival - too little too late
Spurs had several opportunities to take advantage when other teams slipped up but didn't capitalise on them so with four games to play, they needed four wins to have any chance of making the Champions League.  There was the additional complication that if Chelsea were to win the trophy, then fourth place would not be sufficient to make the competition next season.

At the beginning of May, as England appointed Roy Hodgson, and not Harry Redknapp, as manager, Spurs managed to record wins over soon to be relegated Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers raising the glimmer of a possibility that they could finish third.  A draw at Aston Villa, however, took it out of their hands and Spurs became reliant on results elsewhere going in their favour.  While Spurs defeated Fulham in the final match of the season, Arsenal also won, be it in fortunate circumstances, courtesy of goalkeeping errors, to claim third and an automatic Champions League place.  Then it was all down to the outcome of the Champions League Final and once again Spurs were at the wrong end of the result with Chelsea's penalty shoot out victory guaranteeing them the final place in next season's competition.

In what was a season with many memorable moments and performances from Spurs, especially in the first half of the season and against Newcastle United, in the end the loss of firm from February on, during the time of the England manager's vacancy, meant that it ended in disappointment and frustration that they had failed to achieve their primary objective - Champions League football.

It was another of those Spurs 'nearly' seasons - when it almost came good but at the finish they just fell short.  Spurs had everything in their own hands but threw it away due to an inexplicable loss of form while other extenuating circumstances beyond their control also played their part - refereeing mistakes, the England manager's situation, Harry Redknapp's court case and the failure to strengthen the team in the January transfer period.  All influenced the outcome of the season and Spurs' decline.

Spurs, however, have finished in fourth  and a few seasons ago supporters would have been delighted. It shows how expectations under Redknapp have increased that there is disappointment in the outcome of the season.

A memorable season for Spurs that had the potential to be truly great and, unfortunately, will probably be remembered for the way in which Spurs lost their Champions League place and the other dramas which befell their season rather than for the splendid football they played during the early months.

Some clubs would use such disappointments as motivation to move on and do better in the future.  The question is, 'Will Spurs?'


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