Saturday, March 30, 2013
Spurs' left fires them back on track
Andy Brassell, Liberty Stadium
Appearances can be deceiving as the season enters its home straight. The early afternoon sun at the Liberty Stadium concealed a pitchside chill, and Tottenham sweated considerably to leap into third place in the Premier League after a tentative Swansea opening gave way to a fiery finish.
Spurs needed this after their confident stride had been swapped for an unexpected stumble in recent weeks, with three successive defeats suffered before this visit to South Wales, if one counts the alarming flirt with Europa League humiliation by Inter at the San Siro.
Their manner of response was decisive in the first half here, with a couple of left-booted blows from the two players who have perhaps become the most vivid embodiment of what Andre Villas-Boas wants his Spurs to be. Gareth Bale bent most on the Liberty's pitch to his will, just as he had in the red of Wales against Croatia on Tuesday night, and he was aided by his fellow leftie Jan Vertonghen. That Bale is absolute dynamite is plain, but Vertonghen's status as the most technically gifted defender in England's top division is equally unquestionable.
• Hicks: Scrap-happy Swans rediscover spirit
• Fitch: Vertonghen shows Spurs now a two-man team
They combined magnificently twice in the opening 20 minutes. The seventh-minute opener was quite beautifully crafted, with Vertonghen driving forward from centre-back, feeding Bale and then surging onto the Welshman's floated return pass over the top to control and deftly guide past Michel Vorm. Vertonghen then returned the compliment, sending a loose Swansea clearance back into a central area with interest, where Bale controlled and dispatched a wicked shot into Vorm's top corner in the blink of an eye.
If those two flashes of quality made the initial difference in a fairly even game, Tottenham's resolve closed the deal in the final 20 minutes after the omnipresent Michu had halved the deficit, rising imperiously to head substitute Ki Sung-Yeung's corner in off the inside of a post, having previously come close with two other headers.
"We showed the determination of our team," Villas-Boas said after the dust settled, suggesting this win could be "a decisive moment" in the race for Champions League places. Bale joined all his team-mates' hands on deck in those fraught closing moments, with Spurs' brightest star doubling up with Kyle Naughton in the left-back position he occupied when he first announced himself to the football world at Southampton.
Bale made a crucial intervention as stoppage time began, stretching to block what appeared to be a certain equaliser for Nathan Dyer deep inside his own penalty area. "Offensively and defensively, he's a world-class player," his coach eulogised afterwards. Seconds before the whistle, Bale somehow found the energy to burst clear after a last Swansea attack broke down and smashed another shot at Michel Vorm.
Swansea lack a touch of the same certainty at this moment, as they amble into a late season purgatory of pressure-free calm. Laudrup's programme notes acknowledged that his side face a difficulty in keeping the fire in their bellies alive in the closing stanza of the season, having sealed European football and Premier League safety by the end of February.
"We can say that in the last three games, we just lack the last 5%," he lamented in a thoughtful monologue below the West Stand after full-time. "In those games, we've had at least one half where we've been better than the other team, but you have to play the 90. It would be a pity for us if we looked back on May 18 and finished, say, 14th. They're small steps to become a bigger and bigger club."
Chairman Huw Jenkins used his own matchday column to reiterate the bigger picture: that stability remains the key to longevity and that "the extra £20m, £30m or £40m brought in can be wiped out by one bad signing." Laudrup also has an eye on the future, and has a rare opportunity to test the mettle of his current crop as he looks to the next step of the journey. Having signed a contract extension to 2016, he described the rest of the campaign as "an educational exercise for the club, the team and the players individually to keep going."
There has never been any question which camp Michu falls into, and he showed he has the commitment to match his quality with a late scythe on Scott Parker early on, for which he was fortunate to escape sanction. He was the sharp tip of a typically tidy but strangely flat Swansea in the opening half. It was not until Michu scored and the second-half rally gathered pace that a hearty version of 'Land Of Our Fathers' warmed up the Liberty.
If a few of Swansea's number have something to prove, the same could be said for a couple in the Tottenham squad. Emmanuel Adebayor, after a campaign comprising just two Premier League goals in 12 starts before this trip, was again leaden. He should have made it two, five minutes after Vertonghen's goal, but fluffed a soft finish into Vorm's midriff after Bale had sent him surging clear of Ashley Williams. The cheers from the away end that greeted Adebayor's exit, shortly after the hour, was as damning a verdict on his current malaise as could be.
His replacement, Jermain Defoe, quickly showed why it is he rather than the former Arsenal man that has been a heavy presence in Tottenham's season. He snapped and yapped after Swansea's centre-backs and midfield anchor Leon Britton, linked play well and forced Vorm to parry a late effort. Brad Friedel - called in to replace Hugo Lloris with the France captain suffering a minor knee injury - also scored points, defying his famous reticence to stream from his line by rushing swiftly out to block Michu at the beginning of the second half, when Wayne Routledge's quickly-taken free-kick caught Spurs' defence out.
"We are surrounded with top quality players with great ambition," said Villas-Boas in outlining why he believes Tottenham will attain their season's goals. Laudrup will aim to inspire his men with a similar philosophy in the rest of this season and beyond.