|photo by Svadilfari||via PhotoRee|
November 9 / White Hart Lane, London, England
It's Sunderland come calling at the Lane tonight, and it remains to be seen which Spurs side will show up to greet them. Will it be the world beaters who dispatched Inter Milan in the Champions League with relative ease a week ago? Or will it be the more modest Spurs team which went down meekly to Bolton in Game Week 11 over the weekend? Love 'em or hate 'em, Spurs are rapidly becoming the English equivalent of Forest Gump's box of chocolates: you never know what you're gonna get. I decided to head over to White Hart Lane Tuesday night to check out the match and see for myself what all the fuss has been about in our farlieonfootie staff meetings.
Having been recently "re-assigned" from his regular Spurs' beat to cover matches slightly more removed from the heat of the weekly EPL top flight, I am confident that farlieonfootie correspondent Ed will have some sympathy for the referee this evening (that is, if they have tv in the locations to which we've sent Ed). Howard Webb finds himself in charge of festivities tonight, and he has to be wondering who exactly at the FA he offended to be in charge of this match only a few short days removed from overseeing both Real Madrid vs. AC Milan and Liverpool vs. Chelsea in quick succession. No disrespect intended, but to say this is the third most important match Webb has overseen all week is an understatement.
In any event, enough observations, and onto the game: it's a lively pace being set at the start, with Roman Pavlyuchenko peppering Sunderland's goalkeeper Craig Gordon with several early long range shots. By the ten minute mark, though, it's Spurs who find themselves at sixes and sevens on defense, as their makeshift back line cedes several dangerous close range shots to the visitors. The lapse is momentary, and soon enough it's Spurs back on the front foot and driving forward, attempting to beat Sunderland into an early submission.
The action is frantic, with both sides providing fans with significant value for their ticket price, but it's Tom Huddlestone's missile in the 17th minute that really catches the eye. Unfortunately it also catches the post, much to the dismay of the home crowd.
Spurs repeatedly force the ball wide toward a certain winger on the left -- I can't quite make out his name from the seats I've been handed by the home office -- and each time the ball passes his way the crowd sits on the edge of their seats and holds its collective breath. You can almost hear them thinking as one: "What wonders are we to behold today?" To this point in the match, however, sadly the answer is none.
For all their possession and neat, intricate footwork and passing, at the end of 45 minutes Spurs have precious little to show for their dominance. Time and again the ball work is beautiful until the last touch or pass, but it's at that point that the play breaks down completely, like an unfinished work of art in which the artist is ultimately disappointed with his creation and decides to discard it while it remains only half-finished. Van der Vaart, and recent returner David Bentley, in particular, have looked eager to have a go at the Sunderland goal, but have not yet found a way to break through. At the half, despite a near constant bombardment in and around the Sunderland 18-yard box, the score remains stubbornly stuck at nil.
Peter Crouch replaces the Russian Pavlyuchenko to begin the second half, and Sunderland also make a change, introducing the on-loan Danny Wellbeck into the lineup. How Van der Vaart manages to miss a gaping goal mouth in the 51st minute off a David Bentley cross is a question both he and Sunderland's keeper will be asking later this evening. More worrisome, perhaps, from the vantage point of Spurs fans, will be how referee Webb manages to miss a penalty call when Bentley is felled in the box by Sunderland midfielder Bolo Zenden shortly thereafter. Adding insult to injury, Bentley receives a card from the referee for his efforts, and it's not of the get-well-soon variety.
At the hour mark, Spurs are no closer to unlocking the Sunderland goal than they were earlier. It's then that Gareth Bale, the hero of recent days, runs onto a ball at full speed and streaks menacingly down the left flank before crossing the ball goalward. The fans hold their collective breath -- and then exhale once more. It's Michael Turner to the rescue for the Black Cats, as he sticks out a leg to snuff out the threat. Sunderland is proving to be no mere Inter Milan tonight.
It's the 65th minute before a breakthrough is finally achieved, and when it comes it's the kind of goal Uncle Harry could only have dreamed about at the dawn of the season: it's the Welsh wonder kid, Gareth Bale, with the SatNav accurate 20-yard cross; it's the British Flamingo, Peter Crouch, gently nodding the ball down; and it's the Dutch master himself, Rafael Van der Vaart, tapping the ball home for a late 1-nil lead. Ignore if you will the likely hand ball Van der Vaart employs to control the ball with his back to goal, because at this point Spurs deserve both a break and the lead.
Unfortunately, it's a lead they slough off like a thin man carrying a heavy load of bricks only a couple of short minutes later, as Asamoah Gyan levels the score on a ghastly mistake by Spurs central defenders Kaboul and Gallas. Although both men go for a stubbed pass from Wellbeck to Gyan, they somehow manage to miss. The ball rolls through to Gyan, who looks shocked to find himself alone in front of goal, but makes no mistake as he quicky puts it past Gomes to level the scoreline.
It's a flurry of goals after a barren 70 minutes, and both sides seem stunned and frustrated to be even with 15 minutes remaining. Unfortunately for Spurs, that's where the game ends, and it's another case of points dropped at home against a supposedly "lesser" team. Uncle Harry will have to go back to the drawing board to figure out how to end the dry spell -- after all, there's another match at home against Blackburn waiting to be won in a scant four days time.
It's two points from the last possible 12 for Spurs, and it's a farlieonfootie who finds himself wondering if Spurs fans feel like the box of chocolate they've been handed on November 12th contains some which were only half eaten before being put back unfinished.