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CL Final Preview: 6 Players Who Took Tottenham To The Final

1. Hugo Lloris

Heaven knows I’ve been at the front of the queue when it’s come to sticking the knife into our skipper – and giving it a vigorous twist for good measure too – because the absurd, unforced errors have come thick and fast in the last season or two. However, when push met shove in the business end of this season’s Champions League, Lloris thrust out limbs like nobody’s business.

The Dortmund away leg springs to mind, a game into which we took a three-goal lead but looked for all the money in the world like we wouldn’t make it to half-time without being pegged back.

Dortmund brought their A-game, slicing us apart with the sort of blurry whizz of motion that Ajax were to replicate in the semi-final. Time and again they skipped past each of our massed ranks until finding themselves staring into the whites of Lloris’ eyes; but time and again our captain did the necessary, no matter how unlikely the laws of physics suggested this would be. Re-watch the highlights of that first half in particular, and one needs to dust off the abacus to rack up the precise number of point-blank saves made.

Fast-forward a couple of months, and within ten minutes of the quarter-final first leg at home to Man City, VAR had awarded a penalty against Danny Rose, and the customary uphill slog looked set to kick in.

Enter, yet again, Monsieur Lloris, to repel Aguero’s spot-kick and breathe fresh life into this unlikeliest of campaigns. Had Aguero scored, the away goals advantage would have gone up in smoke there and then, and more pertinently City might well have racked up a hatful.

2. Moussa Sissoko

AANP’s player of the season, Sissoko seems to have improved with every game, transforming before our goggling eyes from figure of fun to critical cog in the machinery. One moment that summed up this metamorphosis was his gallop forward in the closing stages at home to Inter.

By that stage of the campaign it was win or bust, thrice in a row. A sloppy start had left our heroes with one point from three games, and any thoughts of winning the whole dashed thing had been tied up in a sack, weighed down with bricks and dropped overboard. Needing a win to avoid elimination in each of Matchdays 4, 5 and 6, this seemed rather unlikely against Inter, until the final 10 minutes, when Sissoko took it upon himself to put his head down and charge into enemy territory.

One is reluctant to blame the Inter mob for backing off, for it would be a brave man to try to impede a Sissoko gathering a head of steam. The chap drove from Point A, around 10 yards inside his own half, to Point B well inside the Inter penalty area, with the sort of steely determination that one dares not interrupt, and with each step began imprinting himself into Tottenham folklore.

He found Dele, who swivelled and found Eriksen, and his finish kept our heads above water. Just.

Further approving nods to Sissoko for setting up Kane away to Dortmund, and filling in at auxiliary right-back away to Barcelona, after KWP was hooked and we went in desperate search of an equaliser.

And of course, his introduction against Ajax in the semi-final first leg did just about enough to wrest the game away from them.

3. Jan Vertonghen

One of several who made pretty vital, last-ditch stretches away to Dortmund, to keep our hosts at bay and our 3-0 lead in tact when it seemed that calamity might befall, my best mate’s true value was demonstrated in the first leg of that same tie.

Playing at left wing-back Vertonghen first went toe-to-toe with Jadon Sancho, by the skin of his teeth keeping the young pup contained in a first half in which we were decidedly second best.

In the second half, however, Vertonghen emerged as an irresistible creative force from left-back, flying down the flank with unsullied abandon, whipping in a series of crosses that sent the Dortmund central defence into a frightful tizz and capping things off with a striker’s finish to put us two goals ahead and take something of a knife to Dortmund’s spirits.

That Vertonghen-inspired win gave us enough breathing space to survive the second leg onslaught – and just like that, we were in the quarter-finals.

4. Harry Kane

An enforced absentee for various critical stages of the campaign, Kane still popped up with a number of pretty vital finishes hither and thither. Hardly a surprise, as 14 goals in 18 Champions League appearances does point to a chap who bounds around the place ticking boxes at this level like it’s going out of fashion, but it’s still rather easy to forget his contribution to this season’s effort.

Most notably this occurred at home to PSV in the group stage. Again, it was a game in which nothing less than victory would suffice – so obviously we went behind in the first minute.

And there we remained until the final 10, when Kane’s relentless focus on hitting the target paid off, albeit in slightly more nerve-jangly fashion than would have been ideal.

First a pot-shot in a crowded area found the bottom corner; and then in the final moments a header towards the right-hand corner took a hefty deflection of one PSV torso to send it towards the middle of the goal, and then for good measure detoured again, of another PSV limb, to trickle apologetically into the bottom left.

They all count – as Kane, more than most, will testify – and on we stumbled marched.

5. Fernando Llorente

Another of those chaps who puts the “fickle” into “AANP”, I can quite easily wile away a spare half hour by simply lambasting Fernando Llorente – and yet few have been more critical to what might be the most brilliant success in our history.

As aforementioned, when needing a win at home to PSV, we did it the Spurs way and entered the final 10 minutes a goal down. By this point Llorente had been unceremoniously deposited into the PSV area, and duly earned his keep. Give him a chance two yards in front of goal and the ball might end up anywhere in the solar system, but tell him to hold up the ball, hold off a central defender and lay the ball delicately into the path of Harry Kane, and he’s in business. He did just that, Kane scored and we went on to scrape a win.

Fast forward to the quarter-final away leg at Man City, and Llorente produced the sort of finish that only a man of his questionable finishing ability can produce. Closing his eyes and hoping to win a header from a waist-height cross, he did enough to bundle his way in front of his man, and use a questionable combination of hip and possibly-or-possibly-not wrist to force the ball in. And then celebrated like we fans were celebrating.

Fast forward even further, and with nothing left to lose in the semi-final second leg against Ajax, Llorente’s very presence, introduced at half-time, did enough to sow seeds amongst the Ajax defence. Daly Blind in particular spent most of that half casting a perturbed hand across a distinctly fevered brow, as Llorente simply bullied him.

Aside from any contributions to goals, this helped changed the pattern of play, and momentum of the game. And then, ultimately, his ungainly, angular poke of the ball, in the final minute of added time, was enough to give Dele a yard, and then Lucas Moura… [goosebumps]

6. Lucas Moura

Not just a man for a semi-final hat-trick, Lucas also scored in the dying minutes against Barcelona, in yet another of those group stage games in which we desperately needed a win and therefore conceded early.

Lucas charged in to slap the ball home from close range, and with a little help from PSV we went from one point after three games, to qualification for the knockouts.

And what a knockout it was shaping up to be in the semi-final. In truth, until he scored I was rather despairing of Lucas’ contribution. Frenetic and a little wasteful when on the gallop; unable to link with midfield when dropping deep with back to goal; and without a shot in anger in the whole first half, he seemed just another one of those waving forlornly as the game passed him by.

But then, by golly what an impact. The surge of pace to latch on to Dele’s touch for the first goal was worthy of an Olympic sprinter.

The footwork to dance around the Ajax 6-yard box before scoring the second was worthy of any head-down 9 year-old in the playground.

And then the winner, placed into the only available spot in the net, at the last possible moment before two Ajax defenders could and would have blocked it, and as the clock ticked from 94:59 to 95:00…

I’m not sure there will ever be a Tottenham Hotspur moment quite like it. The bedlam, the en masse Ajax faceplant, the repeated viewings and the full 24 hours it took to register the enormity. On top of which, it’s rather pleasing that the hero of the hour was one of the more unlikely sorts, as it does hammer home that the whole thing was quite the collective effort (which makes a mockery of a list of 6 individuals, but over that we quietly gloss). Heroes, predictable and otherwise, at every turn – one wonders if there is room for one more name to be heralded on Saturday…

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Ajax 2-3 Spurs: Six Tottenham Talking Points

Real life rather rudely interrupted the celebrations at AANP Towers last week, but since we’re all still floating around atop a cumulonimbus there seems no harm in peddling a few belated observations from our gloriest of glory glory nights…

1. The Complete Absence of Hope

Had we cantered to victory in serene and most un-Tottenham fashion it would undoubtedly have been a thrill, but presumably not one that will live in the memory quite like this magnificent absurdity.

After about 5 minutes of the first leg I was already groaning the groan of a man on death row who hears fresh coins being popped into the electricity meter; by half-time in the second leg I had already whizzed through all seven stages of grief and was starting to wonder about England’s batting line-up for the Ashes.

Even after Moura’s first two goals I simply refused to countenance the possibility of anything other than glorious failure, which in hindsight says quite a lot about how damaging the last three decades of lilywhite faith have been.

But to score the goal that sends us into the Champions League Final, just as the clock in the top left corner ticked over literally to the final second of the allocated extra 5 minutes – well it’s little wonder that we’ve all rewound and watched that moment about a hundred times each. Frankly just writing about it makes me need another lie-down, and etches that massive grin across the chops once more.

2: Llorente: Flawed But Wonderful Hero

As if to encapsulate the glorious lunacy of the night, the man who made the difference was Fernando Llorente.

With reserves so depleted that we genuinely checked beforehand whether Vincent Janssen was eligible, Our Glorious Leader made the call of a man who realises that his entire life’s possessions have gone down the drain so he might as well go all in on his last hand because to hell with it. If Janssen were eligible I suspect he might have been flung on too, but as it happened the only resource left was Llorente, the striker with a penchant for missing from 2 yards. On he duly shuffled.

And it changed the entire pattern of the game. By simply attaching himself to Daly Blind and swaying gently in the Amsterdam air every time the ball was lofted into orbit, he did more to discombobulate Ajax than any amount of fancy footwork and attempted sorcery from the more illustrious colleagues around him.

With the sort of cruel irony that just about proves that the gods like nothing more than toying with the mortals below, this Ajax team who were so masterful and fizz-popping in possession that they made one dizzy just by watching, were utterly flummoxed by the most basic tactic in football. Time and again our heroes launched the ball to the big man, time and again he angled himself in suitably ungainly fashion to ensure that the ball apologetically bounced off him and into the general vicinity of Dele, Lucas and chums.

Naturally, being Fernando Llorente, he contrived to miss from two yards when the laws of physics seemed to dictate that it was impossible to do so; and naturally, being Fernando Llorente he spurned what appeared to be our final chance of the tie by heading over from a corner when unmarked in the dying embers. But nobody cares a jot, because Llorente’s value that night was priceless.

Seemingly created as a striker in concept alone, who adds value in theory, but abandoned by nature before any of the practical specifics of being a striker could be added, Llorente swung the game back our way before Lucas had even begun adjusting his sighter. All credit to him and Poch.

3: Dele’s Touch

Amidst the general bedlam, it was pretty easy to overlook the cutting-edge, shiny, 24-carat quality of Dele Alli’s soft dab of the ball into Lucas Moura’s path for the third.

The general mood around the campfire has been that Dele has owed a decent contribution for a while now. Not his fault, of course, that his season has been staccatoed by injuries, and there have been times when an outbreak of class has threatened. By and large, however, this has been another of those seasons in which one winces, and scratches the head, and generally starts digging for suitable excuses for the chap.

Last Wednesday however, the memo finally wound its way to the Alli grey matter, and he obligingly picked one heck of an occasion to make a handful of those flicks and flourishes finally count.

Observers first stirred at the sight of him making a Platt/Scholes-esque dash to the far post, early in the second half, only for his volleyed close-range mid-air shot to be patted away by the Ajax ‘keeper. The juices were however flowing, as, funnily enough, he seemed rather to enjoy life at the top of a diamond behind the front two.

I suspect that in setting up the first goal for Lucas he was trying to do it all himself, and might have thrown something of an arm-waving tizzy at his colleague for steaming onto the ball, had it not wound up in the net.

But it was the flick that set up the third goal that really had me purring. Well, I tell a gross untruth, because “purring” is not really the adjective to describe what madness ensued as the third rolled in – but the point is that it was an absolutely exquisite touch.

Simply to have the nerve to attempt a pass like that, at a time like that, with stakes like that, borders on the unfathomable. Watch the goal back for the 101st time and treat yourself to a goggle at the fact that he plays it the wrong side of the defender, and without even looking. How the dickens he knew that Lucas was curving his run into that area is beyond me, given that he was looking in the other direction completely, but that I suppose is why he earns the hefty envelope.

4: Danny Rose Starting The Comeback

A loving pat on the head also for Danny Rose – who no doubt would enjoy that sort of thing – for getting the ball rolling, in a matter of speaking. Three down on aggregate, his nutmeg on the Ajax chap, followed by cross-field pass to Lucas, set the whole comeback in motion.

Of course if one wants to trace the origins of the thing back even further one could start heaping credit upon Sonny for feeding Rose in the preceding moments, or Paul Stalteri for haring into the West Ham penalty area, because these things are all part of the sequence of contributory events don’t you know? It was, however, a slick little piece of skill.

5: Hugo’s Saves

Since I’m here and dishing out gold stars in slightly scattergun fashion, I might as well gobble down a frog’s leg and raise une verre to Monsieur Lloris, for a couple of critical saves that kept the thing simmering along nicely.

Stick the ball at his feet and one is inclined to dive behind the nearest sofa and cover the eyes, for fear of what fresh hell might unfold.

However, tell the chap to stick to the business of leaping hither and yon with arms outstretched, and he gets the gist in double-quick time. At 2-2 on the night, and with the clock ticking down in that ominous fashion so typical of the things, Lloris was called upon to do produce the cat-like stuff, and he did not fluff his lines.

6: Everyone’s Positioning At The Final Goal

I have to admit to raising a particularly quizzical eyebrow at the manner of Christian Eriksen’s immediate post-match interview, in which he gave the impression of struggling to stay awake for sheer boredom, even as the walls of AANP Towers were resounding to the clatter of yells and leaps and a general orgy uncontainable excitement. However, if Eriksen spoke one truth it was that tactics rather packed their bags and exited the premises sharpish in that second half.

The introductions of Llorente for Wanyama, and Lamela for Trippier, gave pretty broad hints that as attempts at conventional 4-5-1s and 4-4-2s were bringing little joy, the approach would swiftly alter to more of an Everyone-Pelt-Forward-At-Every-Opportunity-And-Let’s-See-How-It-Lands.

And so we ended up in that last minute with Sissoko starting the attack from a sweeper position (which made some sense because, as we now all recognise, the chap is actually a football genius); Eriksen and Ben Davies alongside him; Toby and Jan desperately edging into wing-back positions; Sonny as a deep-lying midfielder; and everybody else haring straight up the middle in attack. And all this about thirty seconds after Hugo had raced into the opposition penalty area.

It was glorious stuff, utterly in keeping with the all-action-no-plot madness of the game, and fully justifies the constant re-watches, because one never really tires of watching the careering reactions of absolutely everyone involved.

To say nothing of Lucas himself, who seemed only to touch the ball on the three occasions in which he planted it into the net with the dead-eyed precision of a sniper (plus, I suppose, the extraordinary dribble of an uncle toying with his nephews that set up his own second).

Quite why there is a three-week wait for the Final is anyone’s guess, but if it allows more time to revel in the absolute glory of Amsterdam, then it gets the AANP vote.

Spurs 0-1 Ajax: Five Tottenham Talking Points

1. Compliments to the Opposition

It feels like a crime against nature to bestow any sort of admiration upon an opponent, but I couldn’t help but goggle at some of the sleek, dreamy football Ajax produced, in the opening fifteen minutes in particular.

The build-up to their goal was jaw-dropping stuff of the highest order – and I don’t just mean the assist, or the pass before that. The little one-touch binge on halfway, facilitated by some neat flicks and backheels, left our heroes giddily spinning around and flailing at shadows. It was a demonstration of the sort of fare to which the good ship Hotspur ought to aspire.

Another move they produced shortly after drew genuine gasps of admiration, which I thought only happened in the short stories one reads in the nonsense magazines in doctor’s waiting rooms, yet as they sliced us open with what looked like well-choreographed balletic movement, there were all sorts of awestruck murmurs amongst the masses.

Difficult not to admire that sort of racket.

2. Llorente: Not At The Required Level

By contrast, we had the honest but fairly abject toil of Llorente. Not really his fault that nature has bestowed upon him a pretty limited set of tools with which to work, but even within these restrictions he had a pretty wretched time of things.

When he did manage to hold up the ball and hold off his foes, his distribution was, on the whole, just plain inaccurate. He passed straight at teammates rather than into their path, and a couple of attempts to spread the play fell short of their intended targets and instead went down the hatches of opponents. who were only too happy to gobble up the ball and turn the tables on us.

The other principal asset of the chap is supposedly his heading, and while I guess I ought to show some compassion and laud him for getting his head to the thing on a few occasions, it does feel a bit like clapping the useless lad at school for taking part.

Rather surreally, I found myself halfway through a Champions League semi-final wishing we could call upon Vincent Janssen, which just goes to show.

3. Set-Pieces

So with little potency in attack, and the Ajax lot running rings around us in midfield, they only semblance of a threat we posed in the opening 40 minutes or so was from set-pieces, which was an absolutely dire reflection of how badly we were taking to this business.

Even these set-pieces tend to be about as likely to bring about success as tossing a coin, but at least it reminded the rather eccentric Ajax ‘keeper that he would have to keep his wits about him.

Alas, not only did it fail to bring a goal, it also wiped out poor old Jan – although by an odd quirk of fate, this also stopped the rot by virtue of bringing Sissoko into the fray, and if not quite swinging the tie back in our favour it certainly evened things up a tad.

4. Poch’s Tactics

Easy to say from the sidelines, and in hindsight – two vantage points from which I don’t think I have ever made a mistake – but the fact that the enforced switch to 4-4-2 and addition of Sissoko made such a huge difference rather leads one to shoot an accusing glance or two at Our Glorious Leader for his masterplan at kick-off.

Although massively hamstrung by injuries and whatnot, and unable to call upon Sissoko from the off, the tactical choice of a back-three left us woefully undermanned in midfield, and Ajax tore us to ribbons right from kick-off. Worried murmurs abounded that something had to change before the tie was just a speck in the distance, but Poch seemed happy to watch us cling on by our fingernails, until Jan’s injury forced some action.

Wanyama could not keep a lid on the Ajax midfield, and neither Dele nor Eriksen have too many defensive bones in their bodies, so we were crying out for a change in shape to address the problems at root. The point – and I’ll get there in the end – is that Poch need not have waited so long to switch to a 4-4-2. It appeared that he was willing to wait until half-time, but we were jolly lucky not to be two or three down by that point, and out of the tie.

In the interests of fairness however, I do at least laud the blighter for replacing Jan with Sissoko, rather than for example throwing on Dier as a like-for-like replacement and sticking with the back-three. Lessons, one would hope, have been learned for the second leg.

5. Sissoko’s Star Riseth Ever Higher

Sissoko’s surge towards our Player of the Season Award continued apace on his entrance. The transformation in the chap, from the misfiring ball of limbs but a couple of years ago, to Champions League commander-in-chief, is pretty staggering stuff.

And yet there he was in glorious technicolour, rolling up his sleeves and jumping right into the midst of the fray to wrest back some semblance of control for us.

Where Wanyama made the occasional interception, and Rose’s all-action fire was limited to the left flank, Sissoko went charging straight into the centre, either to make tackles or run with the ball and attract opponents towards him. It did not win the game, but it almost single-handedly stopped us drifting irretrievably out of the tie.

Wrap the chap in cotton wool until the second leg, and with Sonny restored to the attack we might just have a chance.

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