Spurs opening match in the Champions League was an intoxicating mixture of breathless brilliance and the downright infuriating. Just as we became accustomed to the new model Eurospurs, dictating and dominating to the manor born, as if this were our 51st game in the competition rather than our first, familiar frailties threatened to expose it all as a giant conceit. In the end we discovered a measure of equilibrium and the result not only provides sustained satisfaction, it also heightens the anticipation for the home game against Twente in a fortnight. A point to begin with is fine, four after two matches and the possibilities are staggering.
Wide eyed we marvelled. Pass and move, smooth, purposeful and easy on the eye, punctuated by a few moments of swooning beauty, like gazing into the eyes of a stunning woman for the first time and she looks right back. Two mesmerising moves for the goals, both moving the ball 60 yards with two passes. I roared at the first, gasped open-mouthed at the second. A move of classic simplicity, made to look effortless by outstanding skill and finished with a header that was glorious in its perfection. The opening passages were truly the stuff of dreams.
Our five man midfield was set up to avoid being over-run but we proved how effective an attacking option such a formation can be. The proviso is, we have to have the right players. Last night the blend was almost perfect. Huddlestone and Jenas toiled unstintingly in the centre and crucially could also deliver the ball accurately when required. JJ in particular was excellent throughout, his stamina and passing adding another dimension to that key area of the battle. His selection to replace the off-form Palacios was a bold move by Redknapp and the manager was rewarded with a fine display.
Definition of a class midfielder: Rafael van der Vaart. This guy has got it. In spades. Strong, shrewd and skilful with a great touch and sense of where to be, right time right place. The Bremen defence were permanently on edge as he moved around in the area between back four and midfield. He wasn’t averse to dropping back when we lost the ball.
In the delicate balance between our attacking instincts and the need for prudence lay the destiny of the match. On the left we clearly ran out winners. After the group stages are over, Gareth Bale will be the most talked about young footballer in Europe. He slaughtered an international opponent in a battle-hardened team. In fact the most grief he had all evening was from his manager who appeared to be giving him an ear-bashing for not doing more of the same in the second half.
Over on the other side, the scales tipped the other way. Lennon failed to sparkle but even so he provided width that stretched their defence and kept their left side occupied. His lack of tracking back, however, left our flank ripe for exploitation and Marin took full advantage. In the same way that Bremen did not close us down in the centre, Marin was given far too much room: too often he faced only one man when he should have been double-teamed. His sense of freedom was enhanced by Corluka’s wretched evening. Left exposed, he appeared to have totally lost his bearings, a dyspraxic lost at sea. In vain I waited for this solid player to gather himself. His form has been poor for some time now and is becoming a major concern. His positional play and sound timing always has to be sharp to compensate for his lack of pace, and these resources have deserted him. A favourite of mine, I’m so disappointed.
The strength of our centre backs provided a solid platform at first for our early enterprise and later for some hard defending as Bremen pressured. Kaboul was the pick. This raw talent is maturing in front of our eyes, His application has been superb this season, taking Dawson’s determination to seize his chance in the middle of last season as his example.
Benny. Ben. Benjamin. Benny boy. Benny the ball. Ben Dover no not that one. Ben Jovi. What on earth. You know I like you, wrote about it a few weeks ago. But we’ll never know what passes through your mind. Lovely passes, good support of the attack, nicely timed tackles. Then a wildly misplaced hack up the field. I’ll actually let you off the goal. You could have done more but even if you had, he’s a big bloke and would have beaten you to that ball.
But here’s the thing. Don’t give the ball away unnecessarily. Regular readers (I can dream) know what’s coming…I’m retitling the blog. From now on it will be called ‘Giving It All Away’. It could be sub-titled ‘Severe Ball Retention’ but that would get the wrong sort of interest from Google searches. Here’s the infuriating bit. Keep the ball. Don’t give it away, let them come and get it. Time and again we presented Bremen with possession. Even when we played keep-ball in the last 10 minutes, we had that throw-in and free kick in the far left, in or near injury time, and no one took it to the corner flag. This will come with experience, or so I would wish to believe, but we’ve heard it all before, in the Premier League. It’s the hardest lesson to learn and frankly Bremen should have punished more severely.
As it was, our defence was pierced too easily in the second half. The midfield who were sound by and large, were asleep after the restart. All five of them were upfield, presenting Bremen with a open path to our box, uncluttered by tackles or pressure. Well-finished by Marin but he could not believe his luck in getting that far.
A combination of good fortune, wayward finishing and some good blocks saw us through. Cudicini could have come for the cross that led to Bremen’s first but it was a decent ball (delivered with any pressure being applied) and he was solid enough on his line. Notably his distribution was an asset – on several occasions he passed the ball to team-mates from the box where most keepers would have hacked aimlessly downfield.
The contrast between VDV and Keane could not have been more damning against the Irishman. I say this with no pleasure as in his experience and all-round game is welcome in a substitute. However, he too gave the ball away and wasted precious opportunities, opting for over-complicated passes and making runs that look good but in fact ask far too much of his colleagues. Notice how often his runs require a ball of such precision, into the narrow strip between the back four and keeper, or a ball right into the corner that takes him into safe areas for the defence.
I detest the popular phrase ‘settle for a point’ because it denies potential and restricts ambition. However, the fact of the matter is, an away point at Bremen is a fine outcome. Undoubtedly parts of the second half were excruciating – I covered my face with my hands on more than one occasion – but this morning I was quietly delighted, a feeling that has stayed with me all day. Driving late last night night, I found myself switching from station to station, just to hear the sports bulletins, opening item, “and in the Champions League tonight…”, followed a few moments later by ‘Tottenham Hotspur’. These words are so familiar, yet so distant. Until now that is. Exhilarating and excruciating, this is the Champions League and we are part of it. And I want more.