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Spurs 1-0 Fulham: That Old Cliche, & The Beckham Verdict

Blinking heck, that was dashed hard work – to which end our vanquished opponents deserve credit, while we can also direct sneers of ill-disguised derision at those fools who suggested beforehand that while there is no such thing as an easy game in the Premiership, if there were then Fulham at home would probably be it. Ahem.That Old Chestnut

In recent weeks I fear that I have begun sounding like a broken record, with tales of impeccable technique and pretty triangles, but this was a performance cut from different cloth, our heroes emerging with bruised shins and dirt beneath the fingernails. While we would all prefer a champagne football performance, such gritty wins as this, with players flinging themselves at full-length to block opposition shots as the clock ticks down, are a necessary evil as we trundle towards a Top Four berth. Observers across the nation have wasted little time in trotting out that predictable line about winning while playing poorly being the sign of a title-winning team, although we would probably be getting a little ahead of ourselves if we began indulging in such maxims just yet.

Opportunity Knocks

The medical boffins at AANP Towers are working around the clock to diagnose Alan Hutton’s untimely malady, but his departure signalled the return to the fold of Vedran Corluka. Hutton strikes me as the type who would react to bad news by smashing a whisky bottle over the head of the messenger, so I rather hope he is not perusing these pages, but history under ‘Arry suggests that once one man departs the starting XI his replacement wastes little time in leaping into the vacant spot and in the process just about removing from history any trace of the existence of his predecessor. It is a ruthlessness to which Messrs Bentley, Kranjcar, Keane and indeed Corluka himself can attest, so should Hutton’s injury prove lengthy he may struggle to return to the team. But I darned well won’t be the one to break the new to the Scot.

Admittedly I am not the biggest fan of the lumbering Croat (as previously expounded, my personal preference at right-back would be Younes Kaboul), but given the circumstances Corluka’s strength and positioning nous proved mightily useful in helping to stiffen up things at the back. Moreover, we were also treated to a couple of those sumptuous little diagonal passes inside the full-back for Lennon to run onto, passes so beautifully weighted they were worthy of Modders or VDV. A vastly different proposition from Hutton, but Corluka certainly has his uses.

Lennon’s Final Ball

There are few more exhilarating sights in Christendom than seeing Aaron Lennon go flying over halfway in a blur of legs, leading a Tottenham counter-attack, but when he had the chance to settle the nerves and score a second he chose the wrong option this afternoon. Indeed, in the first half too he picked the wrong option when free in the penalty area with time to pick out a lilywhite chum.

Beckham: The AANP Verdict

C’est la vie, but some have suggested that this distributory aspect of Lennon’s game might benefit from the wisdom that might be imparted by a certain D. Beckham Esquire. AANP is not in the habit of passing comment on speculation, but as this whisper is fast snowballing towards fact it probably merits half a moment’s thought. In a nutshell I like the idea, primarily for what might be termed the Eidur Gudjohnsen Effect.

Brought in on loan last January, Gudjohnsen made the occasional, pretty handy, contribution on the pitch, notably in retaining possession when leads needed protecting. Perhaps just as importantly however he also added experience to the side as we closed in on a first Top Four finish. If Beckham can add this, plus the fabled off-pitch contributions on the training ground and the like, he would be a worthy addition. Not sure about him as a like-for-like right-wing understudy for Lennon – it would make more sense to deploy him as a possession-cherishing centre-midfielder, in the Huddlestone mould – but whatever the minutiae, the idea appeals.

Satisfactory Stuff

A slight shame that all the other title-chasers won, but three wins in a week is cracking stuff. Having ploughed through the previous two games with ten men it is understandable that our heroes were not at their slick best, and given these circumstances grinding out yet another win is most satisfactory.

England 2-1 Ukraine: If It Ain’t Broke…

It wasn’t particularly broke, it didn’t need fixing. Curious then that Fabio suddenly came over all Norman Bates, picked up an axe and started swinging wildly until something was indeed broken.Lennon was doing a decent job on the right. He had not set the world alight, but there was always a threat, a bit of a buzz, whenever he got the ball and ran at his man. “Menacing” might be the word I’m after. That part in a horror film where the delectable and scantily clad young jezebel finds herself on her own in a dark house – you get the feeling something worth watching is about to happen, even though it might be a red herring.

Lennon on the right offered a genuine attacking threat, balancing (albeit asymmetrically) the Cole-Barry-Gerrard-Rooney combo from the left. At least, that’s how it was in the first half. The withdrawal of Lennon ten mins into the second half robbed England of their only pacy outlet, and coincided with the drop from “urgent” to “perfunctory”.

The introduction of Beckham ought to imply a general shoring up of things, with the game in the bag and 15 mins to go. Instead he was brought on with only a one-goal lead and 35 mins to play. Beckham didn’t get within 30 yards of the Ukraine by-line.

However, Beckham did provide the cross for the winner, which is basically his raison d’être in the team these days, and is something Lennon generally can’t do (certainly not from deep). So was Fabio right after all to withdraw Lennon? The case in his defence – Beckham’s assist – has been made; the prosecution argues that his introduction of Wright-Phillips once Ukraine had equalised indicates that Capello recognised the need for pace missing since Lennon’s withdrawal.

I guess the conclusion is that the whole bally lot of them rather lost urgency in the second half, and the replacement of Lennon with Beckham was a contributory factor – but, when it was needed, Beckham offered an attacking threat, albeit in a vastly different way from Lennon.

The Rest of Them

Elsewhere, it’s broken-record time, as Gerrard’s performance for country was again patently less impressive than his typical displays for club (which is the cue for all Liverpool fans to create life-size models of All-Action-No-Plot Towers and then burn them down in incandescence). Gerrard remains a square peg in a round hole for England. He is most effective behind the front man; but this would negate Rooney, who in a different sort of way is also most effective behind the front man. The bar ain’t big enough for the two of them.

Gerrard on the left is fine against Slovakia, but one wonders if he’ll be quite as effective on the left in the latter stages of a World Cup. Personally I’d go with J. Cole left, and Gerrard-Barry in the centre, with Gerrard having more licence to attack than Lampard currently does. The whole business of Lampard playing a more “disciplined” – i.e. defensive – role had me flailing my arms and muttering in frustration all night.

My man-crush on Rooney continues, but that darned red mist enveloped him once again.

James – calamity.

Ashley Cole – strangely beset by an identity crisis that had him thoroughly clueless as to his nationality, with the result that he spent most of the game passing to Ukrainians. Someone dig out the boy’s passport and talk him through it.

Terry – good assist, and smartly-taken goal, but reckless in conceding the free-kick for their goal. Oh that Ledley’s knee was healthy.

Crouch’s goal was also smartly-taken, but the celebrations for both goals were rubbish. Crouch at least had the decency to look thoroughly embarrassed by whatever the hell he was doing. The Terry-Rooney routine was as appalling as it was perplexing.

However, the bright and breezy take on the game is that we were excellent in the first half, patient and dangerous; and when we absolutely had to raise our game in the second half we did. Three points is all-important in qualifying. If/when we make the World Cup Finals, no-one will care about that dodgy half 30 mins in the second half vs Ukraine in April.

England – Ukraine Preview: JT, Rooney and Darren Bent’s Confidence

For all the well-deserved plaudits, we didn’t learn much about England on Saturday. Rather reminded me of a wedding rehearsal – polite, happy, didn’t count for anything. Slovakia played like footballing eunuchs and were duly thrashed at a canter.Ukraine, and their occasionally-preceding definite article, ought to prove a slightly different kettle of fish – but only slightly. Fifa’s curious ranking system has Ukraine within the top 20, and it is worth noting that, like England, they made the World Cup quarter finals in 2006. Shevchenko and chums are no mugs then – but this is the sort of straight-faced diplomacy trotted out by the players, in those excruciatingly bland pre-match press conferences sprinkled with phrases like “We won’t be underestimating them… No easy games at international level…”

Cutting through the blandness, and Fabio’s England, on the back of some perky form and with a team brimming full of Champions League connoisseurs, certainly ought to beat Ukraine at home. It’s unlikely to be quite as merry a cakewalk as on Saturday, but we still ought to win. While our position five points clear of Croatia gives us some margin for error, it would be better to have that in hand for the trip to Kiev, or visit of Croatia to Wembley. Ukraine at home is not really the time to slip up.

John Terry

After the maternal members of the Terry family tried their hands at shoplifiting last week, there seemed grounds to suggest that at the weekend the family brain cell was being used by the England captain. This argument was promptly shot down at Wembley when JT ensured that a certain Crouch goal was disallowed for offside, by tapping in from one yard, when the ball was already past the ‘keeper and heading for the net. Better it happens in a friendly, I guess, but hardly the most impressive display of tactical acumen. Looks like Rio will be back to partner him on Wednesday.

Roooo-ney, Roooo-ney 

A propos Rooney, the news that Crouch has recovered from injury suggests that Wednesday will see the beanpole up top, with the human gargoyle in that scrumptious position just off the main striker. Nods of approval at AANP Towers. Presumably Gerrard will continue on the left, where he did a good job on Saturday. The link-up play between him and Rooney has inevitably attracted plenty of praise, but he’s nevertheless a square peg in a round hole out there, and a better team then Slovakia (a fairly wide-ranging criterion admittedly) could expose both his right-footedness and defensive lapses. However, it seems this is his home for now, so he might as well bed in and make himself comfy.

The injuries to Heskey, Carlton Cole and Crouch led to some speculation over who would be called up. Michael Owen and Kevin Davies were the names being bandied around. In those kits I wouldn’t have been surprised to see Terry Thomas make an appearance. As it happened our very own Darren Bent got the nod.

The Darren Bent Confidence-O-Meter 

Sat 7 March – Recalled to the Spurs starting XI against Sunderland, the dial on Bent’s Confidence-O-Meter stirs into life and hits 4 out of 10. However, a trademark Bent miss high into the north-east sky, sees the dial return to rock bottom, with our hero considering packing it all in.

Sun 15 March – Bent keeps his place in the starting XI for Villa, and the dial pings upwards again. His sensational two-inch tap-in sees the dial go right off the scale. Winning goal! Victory at Villa! The man is a hero – at least inside his own head – and his confidence has never been so high!

Weds 18March – Forgets to take the bin out for collection. Confidence begins to slump.

Sat 21 March – Retains his place in the starting XI, for visit of Chelski, and all is right with the world again. To his credit he worked his hoopy socks off, and contributed worthily to another fine win. These happy thoughts have the Confidence-O-Meter right up at level 10. However, every time he remembers that he didn’t actually score, it drops down several levels – such is the brittle existence of a “confidence player”. Just stay positive Dazza!

Sunday 29 March – The Bent Confidence-O-Meter explodes irreparably after Fabio calls him up for international duty, following injuries to the first 18 strikers on the list.

So it’s a good day to be Darren Bent. Or at least it was until he did his knee in training and Fabio called up Agbonlahor. Crouch and Rooney will start up front for England, and if things are going to plan I’d imagine Fabio will replace a striker with a midfielder in the closing stages, which will mean precious little action for either Bent of Agbonlahor.

Milestones for Terry and Beckham 

On a final and belated note, AANP Towers politely and sincerely applauds Terry on winning his 50th cap, and similarly lauds Beckham on his 109th. One suspects that this newly-set record for outfield appearances will itself be surpassed soon enough – the modern-day international calendar seeing to it that the Ukraine game is Rooney’s 50th for England, at age 23. Nevertheless, while subtly steering clear of any sort of debate over his selection, I suggest that, whatever his off-pitch shenanigans, Beckham’s attitude in an England shirt always seems to be one of fierce and honest commitment. If all goes to plan more applause will be ringing out on Wednesday night.

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