Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Tottenham Hotspur 1-2 Chelsea

I think I've pin-pointed the exact moment at which Spurs ceased to be one of the biggest clubs in English football. In April 1985, Spurs were three points behind Everton in the First Division when they entertained them at White Hart Lane in a match that many people, beforehand, were calling the championship decider. Spurs were terrible, Everton won 2-1 and went on to win the League Cup. Ever since then, Spurs have been chokers. They choked in the 1987 FA Cup final against Coventry, and again League Cup semi-final against Arsenal in the same year - a result is now seen as the defining moment in the shift in power from N17 to N5. They choked in FA Cup semi-finals against Arsenal (1993), Everton (1995) and Newcastle (1999). Over the last couple of seasons their fortunes have improved enormously, but they still (with the assistance of a lasagne) choked at West Ham on the last day of the season to hand Arsenal a Champions League place, and they've done the same thing this season - first in the League Cup semi-final, when they threw away a two goal lead against Arsenal, and now in the FA Cup quarter-finals, doing the same thing against Chelsea in the first match before finally bowing out with a limp performance at White Hart Lane in the replay last night. And I, of all people, was there.

The atmosphere walking up Tottenham High Road was tense, to say the least. The road was lined with police horses, riot police and vans with (what sounded like) some very angry dogs in the back of them. There were rumours circulating of a major incident at Parsons Green and more than one pub had its doors locked with possibly hundreds of people being shut inside for their own safety. A depressing, but not unexpected, sight. The heavy police presence was perhaps predictive, perhaps reactive. It certainly had its desired effect. It was largely calm as we approached the ground, just after 7.00. Inside the ground, less so - White Hart Lane transforms itself on the midweek cup nights, and the Spurs crowd were absolutely deafening. They kicked off at lightning speed, but it soon became apparent that something wasn't going to plan. Perhaps there was an element of tiredness going on, but Chelsea simply looked sharper. Spurs were lacking, somewhat surprisingly, any creative edge at all and, although they had the majority of the possession, Chelsea looked dangerous when they attacked, and Michael Ballack had the best chance of the first half, pulling a shot wide which he really should have scored with.

I should point out, at this point, that I tried very hard to be neutral about this but, my God, they're easy to hate, aren't they? Whether it was Didier Drogba feigning injury and then getting up as soon as a free-kick wasn't forthcoming and sprinting fully thirty yards, or Ashley Cole looking little more than a moderately capable full-back for his £60,000 per week, they just have an ability to rub me up the wrong way. Added to this, their style of play is just, well, dull. They grind results out. You see flashes of the sort of brilliance that spending hundreds of millions of pounds should bring (most obviously in the two tremendous goals they scored early in the second half last night), but most of the time they're just a winning machine. It's very effective, but I don't have to like them.

At 2-0 down, Spurs should have come out and thrown everything, including the kitchen sink, at them. However, whilst their response was, well, "enthusiastic", it didn't have much substance to it. Berbatov and Keane looked tired, and Lennon was infuriating on the left-hand side, having to cut back to the ball onto his right foot every time he got to the by-line. His delivery suffered accordingly as a result. The only Spurs player that I would single out for serious criticism would be Jermaine Jenas, would looked as if a) he couldn't be bothered, and b) he wasn't much use anyway. My companion, Matt, is a Spurs regular, and he insists that they have been a much better team since he returned to their team, but I couldn't see for the life of me what the point of him being on the pitch was. There was no question that they deserved their penalty consolation (indeed, Ricardo Carvalho was lucky not to be sent off for the foul on Dimitar Berbatov), but they still had nothing to offer in the last ten minutes, short of rolling the ball back to Paul Robinson to thump it back down the pitch as hard as he could. At the end of the match, of course, some moron got onto the pitch and took a swing at Frank Lampard, who was celebrating in somewhat over-exuberant manner in fairly close proximity to departing Spurs supporters at the Park Lane end of the ground. I'll skip the moaning about this being the end of civilization as we know it, and merely add that it was, at the time, very, very funny.

Chelsea and Manchester United now have shoo-in semi-finals against Blackburn and Watford respectively. What, therefore, will the first FA Cup final at the new Wembley Stadium look like? Well, the Champions League final is five days later, so there's a reasonable chance that it might not even be the most important match of one or both teams' weeks. Expect players to be "rested" if this is the case. We can also expect predictably tedious "mind games" in the week or two building up to it, and a considerable amount of pushing and shoving at some point during the match. For Spurs, there's a tough UEFA Cup match to come against Sevilla, and then a battle to secure sixth place to guarantee European football. Still, at least they've still got more to play for this season than Arsenal have.


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