Still feeling the pain of Tuesday night’s self-inflicted wounds, Stoke were frankly the last team I wanted to meet this weekend. High energy and elbows, they saw us as victims, injured, bleeding and sorry for ourselves. At kick-off I swear from the Shelf I saw the glint in Pulis’ eyes.
Time to do more with those anxiety exercises, I think. I could not have been more wrong. Spurs came out confident and bold from the first whistle, as fresh as the spring sunshine. Our passing and movement was a delight, successive attacks bringing the whole team into play, shifting from side to side, someone always available for the extra pass. Luka and Rafa buzzed around the box, prompting and probing, making a series of chances. Crouch and Pav were willing foils and played their full part, even a hint of a partnership in the making.
The team deserve great credit for this. In the past they’ve not apparently been able to raise themselves for challenges like this one. The disappointment of Madrid must have knocked the stuffing out of them despite the bullish statements about it only being half time. So praise without reservation for this professional focus. They demonstrated admirable purpose and poise, every last one of them.
The return of Huddlestone and Kaboul provided extra impetus. Both looked fresh and willing. Hud passed the ball well throughout, giving that added dimension of more possibilities, increasing the number of angles and picking out the men ahead of him quickly, accurately and early. His first time cross for Crouch’s second was effortless and pinpoint, a sumptuous arc that invited the header.
I’ve remarked before on Kaboul’s determination all season to claim a place in the starting line-up. In the first couple of minutes, he won two challenges in quick succession, imposing himself on the game right from the beginning. he sent a message to Stoke that they could not floor us physically. Not only that, his bouncy confidence spread through the team from the back. Despite a couple of wild moments, most notably his run upfield in the last 5 minutes when Stoke had brought on the big guys, it was an impressive return, bearing in mind the length of time he’s been injured.
if we’re liberally sharing out the praise, here’s a double scoop for Peter Crouch. What the hell, stick a flake on top. Defying both his limitations as a footballer and the burden of responsibility for his role in Madrid, it was his best performance for ages, maybe ever. Two classic far post headers, one firmly deposited into the back of the net from close range, the other back across the keeper. No mean feat considering the giants hulking around in the Stoke back four. It also shows the value of decent crosses.
After Madrid, some fans went in search of an apology. This absurd trend in the modern game is no more than a pathetic PR stunt, designed to pacify, well, no one except the papers perhaps. There’s only one way to prove your worth after a shocker, the same one that has applied since the game first began: go out and play a blinder, and keep it going. He duly obliged. I hope he appreciates the generosity of the Spurs crowd, who warmly cheered him when he pranced about in the warm-up, then gave him some special noise when they announced the teams. I confess I clapped but remained mute. He’s a lucky man, especially as it was not so long ago that he treated the Park Lane to some ironic applause when they had the nerve to seethe over another wayward display. He was visibly delighted and responded accordingly.
I did the Observer Fans’ network report on Sunday. They call after the match and run through a few questions, then ask for ratings out of 10, which annoy me anyway but at that point I was negotiating a particularly dodgy manoeuvre to get onto the North Circular. That’s my excuse for giving Pav a 6, i.e. average. I hereby apologise. A 7 is more like it…as if he cares. He could and should have been sharper in front of goal but he had one, possibly two assists. Generally he worked around Crouch, with Peter drifting to the far post while Pav had a freer role in and around the box. Could this be the start of something good? It’s the best partnership we have up front as JD is nowhere right now.
Self-inflicted wounds. The title for the book of the season. Completely on top, we gave the ball away and let Stoke back into things not once but twice. How many times is this going to happen this season? The mark of a good team is that they come back after a bad game, but we’re not there yet if we fail on the other criteria and lose possession so easily. Etheringtons’ goal was particularly good, however.
Stoke’s formation surprised me. We tend not to do well if the opposition crowd us, and Stoke are well practised at this, yet they kept an expansive shape with Pennant and Etherington out wide. Delap and Whelan were often outnumbered as Rafa came off his wing into the centre. Also, Pennant gave his full back little protection against Bale, who looked full of vim and vigour again. First challenge, Pennant kicked Bale at the top of the shinpad and laughed as he trotted back. Part of a plan, I think, but he discovered that Bale was almost back to full strength and fitness.
Modric was back in the centre and both he and the whole team looked better for it. One surge led to a superb goal, striking into the heart of the defence and plunging the knife home with a decisive finish. One sublime little pass, 15 or 20 yards only but bisecting two defenders precisely into Bale’s stride. Brilliant. Again.
Stoke came back into it in the second half, which was not as entertaining as the first. They came closer to scoring, hitting the post via Gomes’ body, and pressured us with a series of high balls that did nothing for my blood pressure. We held out, even though I lost it completely when Corluka just kicked the ball aimlessly downfield in injury time instead of passing to a white shirt. Walking back to the car, pulse almost back to normal, I reminded myself that actually in those frantic last minutes, we won every single ball into the box. not all were cleared at the first time of asking but we got there first. Credit again.
I was delighted with their spirit. We should have won at a canter but we won, a victory much needed as the top four were receding into the distance. We need to secure 5th too, just to remember. It’s put me in good spirits for Wednesday. First 30 minutes, let’s give it a real good go. Win or lose in the end, give it everything and I’ll be happy. Lennon and Bale flying on either wing, stretch them as they stretched us. If Bale takes out three men to stop him, then slip it inside where others will be waiting. Let them know they’ve been in a game. I’m actually looking forward to it now.