Sheriff provide unexpected test for Spurs

Posted by John Crace

It had come billed as a walk in the park against a team from a country that doesn't officially exist. Spurs' 2-0 away win against FC Sheriff was anything but. The Moldovan side gave Spurs by far their strongest test yet in the Europa league this season and will be left scratching their heads that they didn't come away with at least a goal, if not a point. The combination of some good defending, a second goal at a crucial time and a bit of luck saw Spurs home.

The win leaves Tottenham comfortably at the top of the group with nine points out of nine and virtually assured of qualification to the knock-out stages with three games still to play. Just as impressive was that this was Spurs' fifth away win in a row, without a goal conceded. The icing on the cake was Jermain Defoe equalling Martin Chivers' record of 22 European goals. He surely only needs to remain standing up to take the record outright before Christmas.

No one can argue that Spurs aren't taking this competition seriously, yet such is the strength in depth that Andre Villas-Boas was still able to make seven changes from the team that beat Aston Villa on Sunday, bringing in Naughton, Fryers, Dembele, Lamela, Eriksen, Lennon and Defoe. The new line-up brought quick dividends with Jan Vertonghen heading home from close range after just 12 minutes.

Sheriff fought back quickly and only a stunning goal line clearance from Chiriches kept Spurs ahead. The Romanian is now beginning to prove just what a good buy he was. His first game against Villa in the Capital One Cup was understandably a bit nervy, with several passes going astray, but since then he has grown in confidence. With Kaboul back on the sick list with no date for a return pencilled in, Chiriches and Vertonghen look to be the best centre-back pairing.

Whether they will get to play together is another matter. While the Spurs back four maintained a disciplined high line, frequently catching Sheriff offside -- contrary to what the TVA commentators seemed to think, there was nothing unlucky about the offside decisions -- they still give concern on both flanks. As he has done every time he has played this season, Fryers appeared to be a mistake waiting to happen and yet Spurs had no natural replacement for him when he was injured. Naughton was switched from right to left, Chiriches to the right and Dawson brought on to partner Vertonghen in the middle.

To no one's surprise, Naughton was as vulnerable on the left as Fryers; his natural position is at right-back. So for the time being, AVB's only choice is to play Vertonghen out of his best position on the left. Acquiring a new left back in the January window looks to be essential.

The other major concern for AVB is Lamela. He hadn't even got a kick as substitute in the last two league games and he looked out of sorts again against Sheriff. The club record signing is clearly a class player, but AVB needs to find a way of getting the best out of him. Whether it's a matter of confidence, acclimatisation or finding his best position, Lamela can't be left to drift on the margins of the squad.

Fryers' injury also put paid to any chance of Adebayor coming on as a substitute. With Defoe in such good goal-scoring form, this did not have a major impact on the result of the game but it was a missed opportunity. Adebayor has been out so long that no one can have any idea just how fit he is, what kind of form he is in and -- most importantly -- how much desire he has to play for the club. These things need to be found out quickly. A fit and willing Ade is a huge asset; an Ade that doesn't much care one way or the other providing his weekly salary is paid most definitely not.

One player who looks as if he is nearly back to his best is Aaron Lennon. His pace can unsettle any defence and he might have scored at least twice, his closest effort hitting the inside of the post. If AVB dares to play both Townsend and Lennon, he'd have a team to give opposition defences a few sleepless nights. For now, though, the sleepless night belongs to Spurs as they travel back from the far reaches of Eastern Europe. The away win will make the journey a lot more pleasurable. Though some of us might also be thinking that the last time Spurs returned from a 2-0 away win in Europe to take on a team they were expected to beat comfortably in the league at home, they lost 3-0 to West Ham. Hull visit White Hart Lane on Sunday. Fans will be hoping for a very different result this time.

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