Everybody I talked to said the same thing – we were up for it like no other game in recent memory. Not just a derby, this one has become more sour over the last few years. There’s a bitter edge to it, compared with the intense but long-standing rivalry with the Arsen*l, heightened by the welcome but unusual sensation of being third and favourites. Yet after Spurs’ dazzling start, Chels*a hauled themselves back into the match as our performance gradually collapsed under the weight of expectation.
Recently it has taken Spurs a while to get going. Last night, we started like greyhounds after a live hare. Bale went for the throat and ripped apart the defence in a series of blistering, muscular runs. The Sandro/Parker platform give him free rein and how he took to his task with relish. In the end, Chels*a stopped him only by delegating 3 men to cover. By then he had set up Adebayor’s goal, great anticipation plus a long gangling leg to get in front of the defender and better judgement than Cech who didn’t think the Spurs striker could reach it.
This was one of a number of runs, wide to bang in the crosses or cutting inside to make and miss a good opportunity in the opening minutes. The volleyed cross above waist high, chasing a cause everyone else had given up, epitomised his first half.
Good times. Sandro snuffed out any moves by our opponents down the middle while Modric was always able to find space in a crowded midfield. One lovely moment when he conjured up a pass in the very moment of being dragged to the floor by a defender. Assou Ekotto found him regularly with early, accurate passes. We played like the favourites we were and ran the game. Sturridge shot over after an uncharacteristic Friedel fumble. Nothing could go wrong.
However, gradually our opponents reasserted themselves. Drogba hit the post. The goal was a soft one, the scorer unmarked in the box a few yards out. Handball? I’ve not seen any replays but it didn’t look blatant from the Shelf. The Paxton were outraged but then again it was one of those tense evenings that provoked moments of outrage throughout. I did see Benny trailing back, too late to pick up Sturridge, who caused problems for the rest of the game coming in from his wing and BAE was adrift too often. Not one of his better nights.
It wasn’t just the goal that brought them back into contention. In the comments section of Sunday’s piece, as ever more interesting than the article itself, a few regulars and I chewed the tactics fat. Tactics were always going to be crucial in a match of this significance. The Blues’ 4-3-3 allows them to break quickly and sustain an attack with numbers but also they fall back into a dense, disciplined 4-5-1 when they lose possession. To break through we needed to continue to be at our peak but for threequarters of the match we didn’t pass or keep the ball as well as we have done this season. Our opponents stifled us like a boxer hanging on in the clinches but we could and should have been more inventive. VDV couldn’t get on the ball at all, perhaps because of injury, and Parker was quieter than usual. Rather than knock it around and wait for an opening or spread the ball wide, we pushed it forward too quickly.
Harry saw Rafa’s departure as an opportunity rather than a threat. We went 4-4-2 in a bold move to take the game to the Blues and exploit their rearranged right side of the defence. It didn’t work. Pav provided some comedy value but no one was laughing. On the way home we were overtaken on the North Circular by a white Audi 6 PAV, heading off down the A12. Could it have been he, speeding away from the ground as fast as he could, which supposedly he did on Sunday?
As with Sunday, two up front doesn’t work well with this team. They are used to a different balance. It’s better with Defoe because he’s adapted his game this season to play deeper when required. However, as time went on Pav and Manu stayed forward and increasingly detached from the others, too far apart. Manu should have roamed but as it was, their back four were seldom shifted around and dealt with our increasingly rare attacks.
Also, Luka has to stay central. Despite Cole’s advances on our right, we were weak when Modric was wide right and strong every time he came into the middle. This was why we were better in the later stages: Luka was in his rightful place. He had a good effort deflected, then made the pass that enabled Bale to put in Manu for his late chance.
Our defending at set pieces was amateurish. We never got close to Terry and I was relieved when Drogba was substituted.
Our opponents were stronger for much of the half and frankly should have scored. I swore as the ball reached the head of Ramires: it sounded for a split second that mine was the only voice in the stand as a deathly hush descended and time stood still. He missed, and 30,000 souls exhaled.
We mopped up many attacks but never quite picked up their runs from deep. Gallas rose to the challenge, becoming more assertive, while King was alert and quick. He and Sturridge set off on a chase. This was more than a dangerous throughball on the right wing. It was the old master versus the young pretender.
In the blink of an eye, it could have been the changing of the guard. Ledley has learned to turn quickly and maintain a chopped economical stride to coax the maximum effort from those battered, weary bones. He was ahead but the young man pressed from behind. Eager and willing, he sensed weakness and quickened. Shoulder to shoulder at full speed now, for a moment he eased ahead but Ledley stretched one last time and came away with the ball, the master still. Long live the King.
We rallied in the final ten minutes but the impact of good chances for Luka and Sandro were lost in the stomach-churning emptiness of the possibility of defeat. This hideous desperation is part and parcel of success too, I guess. I thought our moment had come as Modric and Bale opened up the defence at last. Manu stroked the ball goalwards but Terry blocked it and the moment had passed. Despite this, we began the night confident that anything less than three points would be failure but ended it relieved that we had one. A good point in that we are ahead and stayed there. Chels*a are still chasing us and like Ledley, we have enough to stay ahead.
Everyone focussed on John Terry. I’ve deliberately left it until last. I don’t like the man and how he carries himself. He deserves some stick but the negativity grew tiresome after a while. The ground felt a better, more positive place for our team when the Lane was rocking with ‘When the Spurs’.
His fans gave him their full support. I question what this says about them. Terry is innocent until proved guilty but if I were accused of racist remarks I would be home under suspension rather than leading my team into the challenge of the New Year. His employers put their own narrow and selfish needs before that of the wider issue of racism in football.
The same can be said about their fans. It’s highly unlikely but if a Spurs player were similarly accused, I would support the team because I love the shirt but would remain silent when it came to that individual. Yet by their actions I can only presume that their fans provided their full backing to a man accused of racism. The tribalism of football offers no excuse. Disgraceful.