Strong minds and hearts of stone took Spurs to the semi-finals of the FA Cup and showed that we are well set for the run-in. Although Tottenham made and missed countless chances, we were consistently inventive and resolute in our determination to win this match. Ironically the breakthrough goal finally came not from one of any number of scintillating moves but from a set piece and a centre back.
The warmth from Bolton supporters, manager and players is genuine and welcome. This cynical age has its football to match but the goodwill between the two clubs has created a lasting bond. The applause rang out long before the announcer signalled its formal beginning. There was a liberal dose of relief in that noise. The last time I saw Fabrice Muamba he was, to all intents and purposes, dead. I had no doubt: as I left the ground that Saturday evening, I had to make a work-related phone call, and choked up completely, uncontrollably. When Pratley went down injured in the same spot, same physios, same stretcher, the deju vu was painful. It’s no miracle: it’s testimony to the physios and the NHS. Very best wishes to Fabrice and his family in the long months of recovery ahead. I really value Coyle’s comments that our club and fans behaved with dignity throughout. Means a lot.
Relief too that football moves on. Sometimes it feels out of place and insignificant to play to the backdrop of some tragedy or disaster but mostly it’s a reminder that life goes on. This became a tribute to the enduring power and passion of the game. An intense cup-tie played to the finish, no holding back and played with passion in a bubbling atmosphere.
As the match went on, it looked as if it would be one of those days. 30 shots in all, 30!, 16 on target and add another 5 or 10 for the ‘whisker away’ category. We even had a free kick that hit the bar. Except I don’t believe in ‘one of those days’. Missed chances are errors, a sign of weakness and although full credit the excellent Bolton keeper Bogdan, who is not their first choice, we took too many touches in the box too often. Bale’s explosive shots from outside the box were well set up but as soon as the ball leaves the area, the keeper reckons he’s in with a chance. Misses from Parker, Manu and, unforgivably, Rafa were bad mistakes.
We got there in the end because we kept on playing. Players and crowd became edgy at the start of the second half when we dropped the tempo and lost possession regularly. However, the feared degeneration never happened. Instead we picked ourselves up, remained patient and came once more for a sustained, inventive assault on the Bolton goal.
Take this game alongside Chelsea. As well as the tempo and possession, the determination and resilience is back. The spine of the team, men whose experience has not dulled their desire to succeed, have looked at the previous few efforts and said, enough. That ability to take a long hard look at performances and have the force of personality and self-belief to turn criticism into the motivation to be winners again has reinvigorated the side. We’re looking forward to the eyeballs-out give everything finish rather than pining for those effortless salad days before Christmas. Rivals have found momentum from a few goals and a couple of wins. We’ve generated it from within but it’s just as powerful. Wembley and a run-in full of home games – bring them all on. But don’t forget the shooting practice, eh lads.
Spurs rapidly established their dominance with sustained periods of pacy combination play, classic economic triangles down both flanks that shredded the Bolton defence. Modric, Bale and Assou Ekotto were especially effective together, with Gareth timing his runs perfectly and making productive choices over staying wide or coming inside and Benny pinging slicers through the eye of a needle. On the other side, Walker was noticeably attacking more and we looked all the better for it. His late runs to the far post are becoming a feature of our attacking play. Later in the game he could be forgiven for taking a breather after a series of lung busting runs like a 400 metre runner doing intervals in training, all in single-minded pursuit of a goal.
It’s good to see Luka controlling the midfield as he did in the first half. When he played, we played. In our two flat spots of an otherwise consistently excellent performance, around 30 minutes and then at the start of the second half, he wasn’t on the ball. With Parker and Livermore solid behind him, he’s able to get to work, foraging for loose passes, seeking angles and making runs into the box. The same goes for Rafa – they have a fine understanding, working hard and moving intuitively into pace and covering where necessary. Wonderful to watch.
No goals though. I’m not keen on indiscriminate shooting but Manu and Luka really needed to out their foot through the ball rather than try to work the perfect opening. One touch and it’s gone. Livermore was unlucky with a powerful athletic effort and nothing from the rebound. With Bolton barely in our half, let alone in our box, Livermore is more than capable of coping on his own so Scotty pushed further forward, only to prove that he’s not so good at that. At half-time I turned away from the big-screen highlights to have a chat, only to look back several minutes later at what appeared to be an endless loop-tape of Bale shooting just past the left hand post.
Redknapp delayed Defoe’s arrival. It looked as if it may be fatal hesitation but we were making plenty of chances without him. As it was, his assist rather than his shooting sealed the game, a perfect ball to Bale who carefully slotted it well wide of the keeper. Before then, after all the cracking flowing gems, the game was turned by a far post header from a centre half wearing a shirt that could easily double as a two person tent for cub-camp. Nelsen will be vulnerable to movement and pace but man to man and in the box, he was supreme. He won everything. He also has that precious skill for a defender to be physical without conceding a free-kick.
After the second goal, the old place was bouncing, not capacity but you wouldn’t notice from the noise. Even after they scored, Bolton didn’t seem unduly bothered with a winner. Saha’s curler was icing on the cake, although even he wasn’t sure it had been given. The ref blew for full-time straight away without kicking off – I’ve never seen that before, so Louis celebrated only after he’d jogged over to shake Webb’s hand and check.
Much to savour. A goal from a corner, the first in about 140 attempts. We still haven’t scored from a direct free kick in the league since January 1st 2011 and not from a direct effort since 26th January 2010 (thank you Optajoe) but we’re getting close. Last night was momentous in another way – Benny acknowledged the crowd during play. A little wave of the hand as he took a drink. Didn’t look at us mind, but it was enough. What a night!!!