Sunday, December 16, 2012
Spurs survive another bout of late drama
Miguel Delaney, White Hart Lane
Not for the first time in a match involving Tottenham Hotspur this season, there was controversy, drama and anguish in the closing minutes.
For once, though, it didn't see Andre Villas-Boas' side conceding a late goal. And, much more importantly, it didn't see Michu badly injured in the incident that sparked the furore.
Spurs have so far conceded nine goals in the final 10 minutes of games this season - the most in the Premier League and a trait that has ensured their challenge for the top four has been a lot more laboured than it might have been.
As Swansea eventually sparked into life to pile forward and try and make that figure 10 in order to secure an equaliser to Jan Vertonghen's opener, Hugo Lloris was forced to come to the edge of his box in order to fist clear. In doing so, though, he also caught Michu on the head, leaving the attacker flat out on the ground.
Referee Mike Dean, however, inexplicably waved play on. Andros Townsend gleefully continued forward, leading to a lot of anger around the pitch. Villas-Boas even ended up on it, in fact, as he tried to calm a situation which also saw a furious Chico Flores angrily confront a number of Tottenham players.
It was Michael Laudrup, however, who was most enraged. He later described the decision as "very dangerous" and said it reminded him of the collision between Patrick Battiston and Toni Scumacher at the 1982 World Cup.
"I repeat again, I don't want a red card, penalty or free-kick," the Swansea manager said. "I just want the game stopped in that moment and had it been the opponent I would have said exactly the same. And just because it was a head injury. In the beginning, I think some of the Tottenham bench thought we wanted a red card or penalty or whatever.
That's not the issue here. The issue is to stop the game.
"He [Michu] is OK. He's a bit [groggy]. When I saw him like this I thought 'f****** hell, he's unconscious or whatever'. I want to [speak to the referee]. It would be nice to hear his explanation, and the linesman as well because they are always connected and sometimes it's the linesman who makes the decision."
If it was the wrong call, though, it wasn't the wrong result. Ultimately, a calmer Laudrup couldn't deny that Tottenham deserved to win the game. Villas-Boas certainly thought so.
He said: "Swansea defensively were very, very good. It was difficult to break them down but, still, we had opportunities, so many chances that it would have been extremely unfair to come out only with a point from this game. It was good for us, a hard-fought win."
In that, given that Spurs didn't exactly produce the completely perfect performance, there were some pleasing elements. First, even without Gareth Bale, they proved dangerous on the counter-attack and caused all manner of problems for Swansea, especially after weathering the away side's passing game.
Then, of course, there was the manner in which they eventually held out. The issue of late goals was thrown into further focus by last week's collapse at Everton, and Villas-Boas was evidently so concerned that he spoke about it in his programme notes. After the game, though, he explained what he was doing to remedy it.
"We address it between us, as a group, in training by stimulating concentration in the last parts. It was very difficult because you can't recreate the stress of a game but, you know, we had a go... by increasing complexity in terms of the exercises, so the more complex the exercise, the more concentrated you have to be. It doesn't mean that the problem is solved but the players are conscious that we have conceded in the past and we want to get it right."
That they did. More impressively, though, Spurs eventually exploited one of Swansea's weaknesses.
"We knew Swansea were in the teams who concede more from set-plays so we had the chance to break the lock," Villas-Boas said.
Ultimately, it was Vertonghen who unpicked it. Kyle Walker curled in a free-kick, Ben Davies got his head to it, but that only allowed the Belgian to steer the ball home for his first league win of the season. It ensured Spurs' fourth win in five. What's more, if the end of the game became as complicated as Villas-Boas feared, the Premier League table has become a little clearer. Spurs are now well-ensconced in the Champions League places, two points clear of Everton and level with Chelsea, who do have a game in hand.
With a series of more forgiving fixtures over the next few weeks, there is the feeling as if it is coming together for Villas-Boas - as illustrated by the manner in which they stayed firm here. Not that the Portuguese is getting ahead of himself.
"It's still very tight together. A couple more fixtures if we are able to get on another good run of results, then we can distance ourselves a little bit. But you know that a margin of seven-nine points in the Premier League means nothing."
Thankfully, neither did the injury to Michu.