Job done: one down, two to go. On the morning after the afternoon before, the prevailing emotion is one of raw anticipation for the City clash but at the final whistle sheer relief was the only feeling on my mind.
This is Tottenham – we never make it easy for ourselves. I never for a moment believed that this would be the lull before Wednesday’s storm and sure enough Bolton proved to be well-organised and motivated opponents. However, we had enough space to do what we do best yet seldom passed the ball through midfield. Movement was stilted and we gave the ball away needlessly, time and again.
I didn’t gain the impression that the team were stage struck, immobilised by nerves. Our play was not so much hurried, rather it broke down through basic failings around poor control, especially from the strikers, and a lack of purposeful mobility, which meant that without a passing opportunity, we were often caught in possession.
If ever there was a match when Luka needed to buzz then this was it but he suffered the most. He worked hard but had little impact overall. In my preview I noted concerns at the form of our strikers and take no pleasure in having those confirmed. Pav was awful, consistently out-muscled by Cahill (if we need another centre half in the summer then we could do a lot worse than look at him) and his woeful control meant that we could never hold on to the ball whenever it was played forward.
When the chances did come, one early on and then later as Bolton were stretched, he either fluffed his lines or was in the wrong place, hanging back when he should have been hammering towards the edge of the 6 yard box. In the second half he applauded the Park Lane as they lifted his flagging spirits with the chant of ‘Super, super….’. No one had the heart to tell him that it was directed towards Gary Mabbutt who had been spotted in the crowd.
Defoe looked brighter in the second half and should not have been taken off. That shot that went just wide resulted from one of the very few passes ahead of him into a channel that he has received in the last three or four matches, but again he looked lethargic, the tell-tale sign of his anxiety being the unwelcome return of his old fault, drifting offside.
The game began in an atmosphere more like that of a derby than a home encounter with Bolton. Not since the cup and league encounters in the same season in the 70s, when we were both vying for the top spot in the second division, has this fixture produced such a noise. They must have been shocked, they can’t be used to this.
Buoyed by the waves of support, we started well but it soon became apparent that we needed something out of the ordinary to break through. Which
Huddlestone duly provided, a sumptuous first time clean strike rising all the way into the very top corner. At such moments, this big ungainly man is transformed into the epitome of athleticism, body and mind in complete harmony. A electrifying experience, worthy of winning a match.
He was our best player because throughout the match he sought to be available for teammates and remained inventive, probing and passing short and long. One deft run from defence carried him past several tackles and set up the forwards, who once more let him down. Under pressure, Tom did not shirk his defensive responsibilities either and when he did make an error tried to rectify it as soon as possible. My main criticism of him in the past has been his lack of awareness and anticipation. He doesn’t read the game well. If the first yard is in the head, the message takes a while to reach his feet. Yet yesterday his positional play was sound and one occasion in the second half he set off to cover a potential gap before his stray pass had even reached the opponent. He’s not played well recently and in the past has hidden in the big games, so all the more reason to praise him now.
In the man of the match stakes, his goal would give him an edge, such was its thrilling brilliance, but close behind were several defenders. King was unobtrusively dominant. There’s an economy of effort about his play these days. He sort of slides over the ground, a series of rapid short strides transporting him to wherever danger lies, then snuffing it out. This belies his strength: one consequence of his injury is that presumably he has plenty of time to work on his upper body. Davies tried to make him give ground, to be met each time with steadfast refusal. When players make the game look straightforward and effortless, it’s a sign of greatness.
Dawson again performed with admirable solidity, coming into his own in the second half when first Bolton pushed us back and then drove a series of crosses into the box. But the big surprise, and very welcome it was too, was Kaboul. Formerly known primarily for his statuesque performances, in comparison making Hud look as agile as Beth Tweddle, he repeatedly stampeded down the right, showing pace, awareness and considerable skill. Towards the end he remained calm as the tension cranked up, timing tackles impeccably and using the ball with care. He and Lennon linked well in the short time they were together.
Last but not least, Gomes was decisive coming off his line and sprightly on it, on the few occasions that he was called upon to make a save. He makes better choices now between catching and punching, the majority of the latter achieving decent and safe distance as he emerges fearlessly into the ruck of bodies in front of him to clear the danger. His absence on Wednesday just does not bear thinking about, especially as he seemed to injure himself in a moment of needless effort. Let’s be honest, he can be a bit of softie, asking for the physio to come and tend to a speck of dirt on his gloves. I hope it’s not too bad – it was a good time to break up the play (added time had begun) and if he had been badly hurt, surely he would not have joined the lap of honour, although probably that would have disappointed his young daughter who he carried in his arms and who clearly enjoyed it far more than most of the squad.
If this central defence stays tight and taut, and does not get moved around by City’s pace up front, it provides our best chance of a point or three on Wednesday. They work tremendously well together as a unit and also enable the ball to come smoothly from the back.
We never do it the easy way. Bale and Lennon provided a taste of what we might look like with them both in the team as Bolton came forward and the space opened up, but a succession of good chances were squandered. In the end it did not matter but would have eased the suffering in the stands. The moment when the ball was swung wide to Bale who hit it first time across the box was breathtaking. Clearly a training ground manoeuvre.
Afterwards Dawson took the plaudits for Player of the Year. Waiting in the tunnel, he could not resist nipping out to get a better view of his highlights on the big screen. He’s terrific.
The lap of honour was a desultory affair, the player hidden under rainwear and apparently keen to get into the warm and dry again. No left-over goodies from the Spurs shop tossed into the crowd. No footballs booted into the stands. I’ve come to expect such corny theatrics at the end of the home season. No one was bothered – perhaps like us they had thoughts only for City.