The Top Four vs Europa debate has become increasingly academic over the course of this season, because whatever the rights and wrongs AVB is clearly intent to keep hurling at kitchen sinks and first-team players at his Thursday nights, until that ineffably-shaped pot is in our mitts. As has been pointed out by various scribes, for all the potential hazards around fatigue this whole European campaign has, in general, been a rather edifying process for the mighty lilywhites, allowing the players time to dashed well understand the gravel-voiced murmurings of the grand fromage in the early part of the season, and also providing the occasional night of merriment and good cheer for the shuffling throngs on the White Hart Lane train platform. We might as well go on and win the whole dashed thing now, no? After all there barely seems another team qualified to do it.
A man with an unpronounceable surname is always worth a tip of the hat, so an entire football club possessed of what may – or may not – be a silent ‘s’ ought to be treated with a certain degree of deference. That said, we be the mighty Hotspur, and as such ought really to grind this lot into submission over two legs. Of greater concern at AANP Towers is the welfare of key personnel, for any sort of injuries to Bale or Dembele (or indeed, for the sake of our shape, Master Lennon) would be frightfully unwelcome at this stage of proceedings.
The usual selection larks and japes will ensue no doubt, with Friedel retained at the back, a soupcon of jiggery-pokery in defence and the usual midfield. Defoe is out and Master Dempsey is reportedly back, but Adebayor will presumably be unleashed once again to wreak his usual devastating brand of havoc across the Swiss back-line.
Traditional wisdom had it that a clean sheet and solid lead would be the order of the day, but this being N17, and the last round’s 3-0 home advantage having been transformed so effortlessly into a monumental pickle, it is difficult to know quite what the target tonight should be. Perhaps, in the finest tradition of a stag-weekend, we should just aim to make it through proceedings with no broken bones and no arrests, and then re-assess.
On a scale of Bothersome to Tickety-Boo this result is Quite the Cheeky Restorative, what? All rather frantic and wince-inducing by 16.50 GMT for sure, but ‘twas ever thus in the land of Mighty Hotspurs Seeing Things Through to The Closing Credits, and whichever way you dilute, swill, gargle and spit it out a 2-1 away win is a 2-1 away win, and for that we can dashed well click our heels.
Goodness only knows quite what stuffing is going into the Vertonghen pipe these days, but by jove it is putting more than just a spring in his step. Headed goals are one thing, and the controlled volley against Liverpool was particularly adept for someone who is ostensibly a centre-back – but the control and finish for his latest masterpiece did not have me leaping from the seat so much as examining him suspiciously for signs that this was in fact Master Bale donning a remarkably convincing all-in-one, full-size Central Defender costume for a happy chum’s stag weekend. Apparently not however; this is indeed Vertonghen, and he really does show more composure and élan in front of goal than most English centre-forwards in a tournament squad. On top of which, he continues to carry out the day-job, of defensive elbow-grease, with the sort of class not seen in the less savoury aspects of life since Alan Rickman informed an awestruck public that he must have missed 60 Minutes. Dawson has his fans, and rightly so, but at AANP Towers we are donning party hats and pouring Twiglets into a bowl in preparation for the day when Vertonghen is paired with Monsier Kaboul, and the very definition of “Central Defensive Thunderblitz” is written anew.
Elsewhere on the Pitch
Naturally enough, Bale had his cape securely fastened too, another absurdly high-quality strike accompanied by the usual bevy of stirring gallops from the halfway line. And this on what was somehow one of his quieter days.
One suspects we will be one heck of a team once supplemented with a striker who cares two hoots, but until then we must solider on with Adebayor. By contrast Dembele had a good irrepressible air about him, particularly in the first half, and pretty much all of them showed commendable eagerness to beaver away when not in possession in the opening half hour, but probably the most notable difference from the flounderings of recent weeks is that everyone seems simply to know what they are supposed to be doing when Lennon is back on the right, even if he goes 30 minutes without touching the thing.
(And if you pardon me dusting off the AANP anorak, at one point in proceedings I was struck by the observation that for all the left-footers in the team – and there are quite a few now – neither our left-back nor left midfielder/winger were that way inclined. Just an idle musing, neither here nor there.)
For around 30 glorious first half minutes our heroes were jolly well imperious, and two goals was a quite appropriate reward. Thereafter, as with the win against l’Arse a few weeks back, we dropped deeper and cut things a little too fine for the liking of those with an urge to go a few more years before worrying about coronary grumblings, but it is nevertheless vaguely encouraging that by and large these days we hold out until the end.
All of Which Means…
Just a few weeks ago the Top Four appeared to be ours for the taking, but one dodgy Anfield back-pass later and our heroes had wobbled rather drastically off the yellow-brick road. This good race still has a few yards to run, but some degree of order appears to have been restored (again, I humbly direct thee towards Exhibit A in the form of Lennon and his jazz-hands), so I think we all breathe a little easier for now. Happy Easter.
Unfamiliar territory, and I half expect that come kick-off players from both sides will simply stand around scratching their heads and gawping, because the game-plan here is a little tricky to establish. It may well depend on how Inter approach this, for should they show the sort of lack of interest displayed quite so vehemently in the first leg this could turn into one of the great tedious nights in our history, with both sides wiling away the time until the final whistle. Alternatively, should Inter score early our heroes will trip over themselves to reach the Panic Button. I suppose a third scenario is that our lot crunch down on the accelerator from the off and blitz Inter away again. C’est possible, one and all, but it really is a dickens of a task to predict beforehand how this one might transpire.
No Rest For The Wicked
AVB has suggested that young master Bale will be the only absentee, of the regulars, and while Dembele and Parker might benefit from a rest it is probably just as well to start with the usual troupe, and withdraw them in the second half if everyone is sticking obediently to the script. Having already had an enforced week off Aaron Lennon is apparently back in the squad, and as the principal speed-merchant in our ranks he has the opportunity to play quite a starring role, assuming we look for counter-attack opportunities (do excuse us at AANP Towers as we drift off to dreamily recall the magnificent breakaway goal that sunk AC Milan a couple of years back…)
“No alarms and no surprises,” warbled musical oddballs Radiohead a few years back, and if that were to be the gist of things tonight we could all light our pipes with subtle smugness this evening. History contains enough reminders of our capacity to complicate the uncomplicated, but the current vintage appear to have their heads screwed on reasonably tightly. One way or t’other we should prevail.
Another day, another dickens of a lip-smacking fixture for the good ship Hotspur. Merrily enough, our heroes have spent the week positively sneering at the reputations dandily waved around by opponents who dare share the turf – in particular the reaction to the final whistle on Thursday, when a comprehensive battering of Inter elicited little more than a couple of back-slaps and a business-like march back to the changing rooms, suggests that standards have been raised in N17. Pilfering the Anfield larders is not necessarily high on the list of Traditionally Straightforward Premiership Jollies, but our heroes can certainly approach matters in a buoyant mood, for should they play anything like they did on Thursday the red mob will probably wander off in a huff at not being allowed even a touch of the ball. But alas, ‘tis a new day, and our foes are unlikely to roll over and request a playful tickle of their tummies, in the manner of Inter. A slippery prospect looms; such challenges have been met with several shades of aplomb in recent weeks.
There is presumably a smidgeon of doubt around Aaron Lennon and his jazz-hands, so Sigurdsson-right and Holtby-left could be on the cards, which is far from being the worst amended line-up ever to traipse the greenery. Having oozed class as if afflicted by some puss-inducing malady in his last two outings at centre-back, Vertonghen would be well-advised to wring out every last drop of the stuff in preparation for an afternoon’s duelling with the multi-talented and renowned good egg Suarez. Dawson and Lloris will presumably return, and while Defoe attracted opprobrium in some quarters for the narrow-mindedness of his approach, his propensity for leathering the orb goalwards at every opportunity renders him the sort of foe to jolly well keep an opponent on his toes - and as such he seems a vastly preferable attacking option to Adebayor.
It seems safe to assume that a stern test awaits, but with our heroes now knee-deep in the tricky final slew of fixtures and faring well enough we can probably approach this one with cautious optimism.
He already has a few on the CV, but this ranks amongst AVB’s finest moments for sure, and was most certainly the finest performance. To date it has been effective and disciplined, but with off-the-ball movement, slick passing and Inter carved open at will, this was as marvellous as a fruity sorbet drizzled in champagne and served by that sultry young thing who appears at the very end of the Golddigger video.
You can jolly well stick into a hat, shake around, say a magic word and pick out at random the name of any one of a half-dozen lilywhites who purred their way through proceedings with the aplomb of a man twirling his cane with every step – Dembele, Parker, Sigurdsson, Walker, Lennon and Vertonghen all oozed lickety-split.
It started off perkily and progressed into a 90-minute highlights reel. The serenading of Lee Dixon; the manic second half 80-yard sprint between Bale, Lennon and Walker; Lennon’s cheeky nutmeg; the presence of a striker who dashed well wanted to score every time he even sniffed the ball within a 10-yard radius (for sure he might pick a pass from time to time, but he can reasonably be excused on the grounds that he is around a thousand times better than the Adebayor of recent weeks); and quite simply the fact that our heroes won every darned tackle going and passed so many triangles around Inter that they wanted to eat their own heads in frustration.
Of blots on the escutcheon there were but few. The caution for Bale - regrettably deserved (if rendered pleasantly redundant); the worrying disappearance of Lennon with sock rolled down; the egregious Vertonghen song. The resident pedant of AANP Towers is murmuring in the background that we might have had more than three, but this result, clean sheet and all, ought to be plenty, even without Bale. The tie should be safe, there is sufficient swagger to whisper about silverware in a couple of months - and a 3-0 floodlit win over Inter is the sort of result that could be polished, framed and hung rather splendidly amidst the family portraits.
Whereas the pre-match optimism in this corner of the interweb had been based on the fact that our forward line knows a few more trade secrets than that other lot, and were therefore likelier to get the best of the half-dozen goals that seemed likely, winning a game of this magnitude on the strength of a superior defence did have me sipping the celebratory late-night bourbon in a rather thoughtful manner.
Truth be told, that first half may have been a triumph for scrumptiously-weighted passes into the path of onrushing lilywhite midfield types, but it was something of a disaster for the dubious art of high-line defending. Vertonghen stuck out a limb in timely manner on a couple of occasions in that first half, but the high line hardly looked watertight, for willing though they are, neither the Belgian nor Dawson are really blessed with the most searing bursts of pace. Still, l’Arse did not have the sense to play the right pass when opportunity presented itself in the first half, and in the second the whole business of high defensive lines was largely negated by our lot dropping deeper (albeit presumably by accident rather than design), the aforementioned centre-backs repelling everything with all the gusto of a couple of heroes from a big-budget Hollywood battle epic. Nerve-wracking it most certainly was, but barely a clear chance was actually fashioned at our goal.
One ought not to muse on proceedings without pausing to toast the two goals, for hilariously inept though the defending was, the passes from Sigurdsson and (oddly enough) Parker were enough to merit that a small gold star be ironed onto the sleeve of their shirts next time they take to the pitch. Amidst all the hullaballoo there has also been a tendency to overlook the quality of the two finishes, which is really just not cricket. Identical chances, taken in very different but equally expert styles – someone in a smartly-fitting suit ought to tap his glass and say a few words of tribute amidst a cloud of cigar smoke.
Elsewhere on the pitch it was hard-earned and mighty satisfying fare all round. (Almost all round, on reflection, for if you will excuse the slightly awkward clearing of throat it is difficult to ignore the fact that things perked up in the second half once Adebayor had been scraped from the turf and hauled away, with Defoe seemingly far more interested in applying himself to the day-job.) Our heroes may have segued seamlessly from perspiring elbow-greasers to care-free spring gambollers had one of those straightforward second half chances been popped in (quite what masterplan popped into the Sigurdsson cranium at the vital juncture is a poser), but in a curious way it was somehow more fun to see l’Arse toil so feverishly to no avail. So near, yet seven points afar. The heart bleeds for them.
Tedious points will presumably be made at this juncture about the remaining fixtures and last season and whatnot – for another time, please. Smug grins remain the order of the day.
Stirring stuff. Not quite a game of two halves, but most certainly a game of a slightly moribund lilywhite first hour followed by an unashamedly spiffing comeback in the last half hour or so.
No doubt it was yet again wrapped up by the young maestro doing that thing he does, but I implore ye, stun your loved ones by donning headwear even though sitting indoors, just so that you can doff it in the direction of the various unsung – or at least sung in a more piano style – lilywhite supporting cast members. (A troupe that most pointedly does not include Master Adebayor – for him I recommend you reserve your coldest, most contemptible stare.)
Monsieur Lloris is unlikely ever to garner the headlines of Bale, poor lamb, but the save he made at 2-1 down was worth a goal - and the speed at which he zipped from between the sticks to the feet of the onrushing attacker was indicative of a man who obediently ate his greens as a child.
Mind-bogglingly enough, Scott Parker rolled back the years to transform himself into some sort of all-action, galloping, swashbuckler of a midfielder. Well not quite, but I do rather fancy that the Brains Trust may have finally had a word in his ear these past few days, about taking half a dozen touches before popping the ball 10 yards backwards, for when the chips were down at 2-1 he seemed the first to grab the initiative and trundle forward 40 yards with it. Admittedly there was not necessarily always a useful end-product, this intriguing Dembele impression did shift our heroes from back- to front-foot, and once they hit their stride the chances came whizzing in from all angles.
A couple of useful contributions too from Sigurdsson, both in terms of whipping in crosses and generally offering sufficient assistance to Bale to distract the West Ham ruffians, while young Lennon looked threatening, once his team-mates remembered that he was on the pitch.
The Goldest Star of All
But by golly, bravo Bale. The line of frightened rabbits in the West Ham defence did not know whether to sit back and let him belt one in from range, or charge at him and watch him skip merrily away. Is there anything the young blighter cannot do? Tap-ins, I suppose. These are privileged times.
Momentous Stuff, What?
Hindsight will confirm I suppose, but this did rather strike me as a potentially momentous notch on the lilywhite bedpost. Another last-minute winner, away from home, coming from behind and against a team whose physical approach made us feel jolly uncomfortable throughout – ‘twas not the sort of thing we used to do. The celebrations suggested that our heroes, both on the pitch and on the coaching staff knew it.
In theory the drill for this one should be simple enough - nice and tight at the back, then step aside to let Bale and Lennon blaze merrily away on the counter-attack, and before you can say “Sur ma tête”, mon fils,” we’ll be home for a late-night bourbon.
Or not. Footballers are renowned for many things, but cerebral robustness probably is not one, and it is easy enough to imagine our heroes straying from the script, and that 2-1 cushion going the way of all flesh within minutes. Still, even if they do take the complicated route, the AANP tuppence is firmly placed on qualification, for our lot simply tend not to lose these days.
The Bale Factor
Quite what the devil we will do once young Master Bale has scarpered for pastures more lucrative is too frightful to contemplate at the moment, but to the pleasure of porcrastinators the world over this is a problem for another day. The One-Man Astonishingness Machine is very much a lilywhite tonight, and as such we line up virtually twelve vs eleven. Stick him on the left, stick him through the middle or just leave him on free-kick detail – his garish size nines are sprinkled with magic dust at the moment, and the Lyon brains-trust are presumably scratching their heads in bewilderment at the task awaiting them.
Elsewhere Messrs Dempsey and Adebayor are each purveying their own unique – but rather different – brand of bally infuriating nonsense, as I believe it is known. Dempsey is certainly a willing trier, so God presumably loves him, but AANP is becoming increasingly irritated at the manner in which his laboured multiple-touch technique sucks the lively juices from any useful-looking attack. Adebayor on the other hand, seems to have made a deep and fervent commitment to doing absolutely anything other than straining every sinew for the lilywhite cause. Nothing that cannot be rectified by a breezy Bale-Lennon-Holtby combo, but still enough to drive one to such despair that there is no option but to emit a sincere - and loaded - tut.
More chopping and changing can presumably be expected in defence, and if he is feeling particularly emotional AVB might use Lloris rather than Friedel. Whatever the minutiae, and whether or not I and my lilywhite office-chums eventually locate a drinking-hole in the Vauxhall area showing itv4, one would expect our heroes to muddle through. Bon chance, gents.
Seasoned visitors to the AANP abode will be well aware that in these parts we tend not to commend the team on a jolly well-earned and impressive win against one of the country’s form teams if we can have a grumble instead.
For all the quite stunning bravado of our resident half-man half-deity, our heroes did again lack some of the whoops-poop-twiddly-dee that had been the hallmark of recent years, if you excuse the over-technical jargon. The AVB mission will need time, and our heroes have become bizarrely consistent team these days, but until Bale (or, to give him his dues, Lennon) clears his throat, spits on his hands and takes off on a gallop there is little of that fizzing one-touch stuff to get the pulse racing – or the opposition quivering.
All rather harsh however, for this was one of our finer moments. In years (or even weeks) gone by, a meaty to-do against opponents of this nature would have brought us no more than a point. Look closely at the platform from which Bale burst forth and you will note that it is constructed from the finest mix of lilywhite blood, sweat and tears.
And on a valedictory note – the boy Bale might just have a future in this football malarkey, what?
Has the good ship Hotspur ever enjoyed such a serene voyage? From the moment that angry lad spat and walked this eased into an absolute stroll – one-way traffic throughout the second half, and even though the lead was but one goal there was none of the usual frenzied panic that accompanies the final five minutes. Most odd. Topping, but odd.
He Plays On The Left…
AANP will graciously leave the superlatives to others for now, but chin-stroking a-plenty in these parts after seeing the impact of our handsome young Welshman over the last week, when unleashed and allowed to gallop wherever he jolly well pleased. I suspect there is nary a lilywhite in the land who has not at some point grumbled that Bale plays on the left and on the left he should stay – but by golly when the urge grabs him he certainly knows how to leave a trail of destruction down the centre, what?
The young blighter is capable of spontaneously laying match-winning eggs from any position, but 90-minute match-bossing is a dish best served from the centre, and frankly just about anything at which it was worth tipping one’s cap on Sunday emanated from Bale’s careering frame. On top of which, this whole can of worms rather gets inverted and painted an odd shade of green when one considers our general paucity of strikers. The mind boggles.
A New Man-Crush
But never mind Bale – old news, and the lad will be off in a year or two. The future is Herr Holtby. Those boy-band looks are actually quite irritating to one growing old as grumpily as AANP, but the work-rate of Parker, coupled with the delightful attacking awareness and defence-bisecting first-time passes of some sort of VDV-Sheringham hybrid, most certainly strike the right note. With Dempsey putting every ounce of effort into assuming the Jenas position of Most Infuriating Lilywhite On The Payroll, the arrival of Holtby goes a long way to putting the ‘ahoy-hoy’ in ‘geronimo’, if you know what I mean. A Bale-Holtby-Lennon triumvirate merrily interchanging the night away behind Defoe/Adebayor suddenly turns the evening drink from one of fretful concern to blithe inebriation. And huzzah to that.
Elsewhere On The Pitch
Other points of note were distracting rather than particularly important. The first half West Brom aerial bombardment may have contained about as much subtlety as a spade to the back of the head, but it still had me yearning for Kaboul (and also prompted a bit of wondering around these parts as to what the future might hold for the overly-vowelled Lukaku).
Back in that era when our back-four were still being posed problems – an era referred to in the annals as ‘The First Half’ – there was a suspicion that Messrs Walker and Assou-Ekotto had but one brain cell between them, and were not using it particularly wisely, as they repeatedly made a mess of the offside trap and short passes and basic goal-side marking. No real harm done however.
Naturally enough, the Defoe injury was greeted by the sound of about a million exasperated Spurs fans slapping palms to foreheads and muttering in no particular order the phrases “Transfer window… strikers… injuries… Levy… Bother”. Mercifully, the all-singing, all-dancing virtuoso display from Bale, coupled with the charming start offered by Holtby and Togo’s ANC elimination, suggests that this may be a bullet dodged. All a tad precarious though.
However, all things considered (two away games, striker shortage, Sandro injury) this could reasonably go down as the footballing equivalent of a chap jauntily going about his business, with his lips emitting a cheery whistle no less. Toodle-pip for now.