Men against boys. And while it is both correct and easy to point out the excellence that is clearly present in the Tottenham Hotspur ranks these days, this was as witless and as frightening a Tigers display as we’ve seen in many a year.
Phil Brown talks about gameplans a lot, and presumably the system is that he and his assistants work out the gameplan, then select the players most suitable to carry it out. Whatever the gameplan was, it failed spectacularly, and the players on show looked scared, confused and a little starstruck. Only one change was made thanks to the injury at Chelsea suffered by Dean Marney, so Brown decided not to put any creativity in the centre of midfield and instead picked Daniel Cousin to play alongside Caleb Folan up front.
Now, yes we have an American hobbledehoy anxious to play but barred from doing so by Sir Humphrey, and yes we have an Algerian lad whose match fitness is still being worked upon. But surely it worries even the most charitable of supporters that we are starting Premier League games, after a summer of false starts, with Cousin and Folan up front, neither of whom will be rattling in the chances – or even getting in the right places to test their rattling skills – on a frequent basis.
Folan seems to have acquired a work ethic and a heart, which is admirable. He can feel unusually blameless. Cousin, however, didn’t do much to quell the rumblings about his alleged laziness and an eye on the big prize in Dubai with a shoddy opening 20 minutes of touchless, directionless forward play which then saw him replaced in a tactical switch by Brown for the saviour of us all, Geovanni. By this point we were two goals down to a side who were absolutely merciless in their pummelling of the Tigers.
Spurs had made a hatful of chances pretty much from the off, with Luka Modric forcing a smart, if mildly desperate, block from makeshift right back Steven Mouyokolo (whose performance highlighted our urgent need to replace Sam Ricketts more than ever) and a chip from the copper’s pal Jermain Defoe which beat Boaz Myhill but also the crossbar. It was a mere question of time, and just ten minutes of it had gone when George Boateng, whose lung capacity to sustain two games in four days must be suspect, lost the ball very cheaply and it was quickly whizzed through to Defoe, who powered his low shot beyond Myhill’s left hand.
Four minutes on and another counter attack of serious quality made mugs of City again, with Aaron Lennon scampering at full pelt on to Heurelho Gomes’ clearance and feeding Robbie Keane, who swiftly helped the ball further along the line of attack for the neckless Wilson Palacios to finish with style and simplicity. Oddly, Gomes was injured by his own clearance, and was replaced by Carlo Cudicini before the game could restart.
This threatened to become riotously one-sided. Well, it already was, but now there was serious fear of a right hammering, were Spurs ever to feel in the mood for it. Fortunately, they weren’t, with only Modric testing Myhill with a set-piece prior to the switch that introduced Geovanni for the embarrassed Cousin. Even if he isn’t in his greatest form, the Brazilian is still a crowd-pleaser and in this instance, became a crowd-rouser too, with the Tiger Nation finding their voices as he entered the field of play undoubtedly with a plea (rather than an instruction) from his manager to rescue us from this fine mess.
He didn’t succeed, but he did make an impact. Stephen Hunt had already lobbed Cudicini with a shot that dropped just wide after a superlative diagonal ball from Michael Turner by the time Geovanni did a twisting act which prompted a foul and a free kick. The big men – and we have serious big men now; it’s like being Stoke, only respectable, hygienic and with actual footballers – sauntered forward but Hunt’s free kick avoided every single one of them. Luckily, it also avoided every member of the opposition, including Cudicini, and the ball bounced once before settling in the far corner. A fluke of a goal but it got the Tigers back in the game.
Nothing becomes the Tiger Nation quite like their encouragement when they sense the salvaging of a lost cause. Geovanni helmed this spell of dominance, feeding the willing Hunt with a delightful inside ball from the corner flag but Palacious got a vital foot in just as the shaggy-haired Irishman, who looks a fine signing, was swinging his shooting foot. Folan was unjustly pulled back for a foul on Sebastien Bassong by picky ref Chris Foy, but slid the loose ball competently into the net nevertheless, just as the whistle sounded. The big striker then got a good slab of his forehead on to Bernard Mendy’s swerving cross but Cudicini’s gloves took a grip of the ball before Geovanni could apply the necessary final touch.
It seemed hopeful, even though Spurs were clearly taking a breather. For all City’s endeavour and effort, it was always at the back of everyone’s consciousness that the visitors could and would restore the two-goal advantage if we dared let them. And, astonishingly, the player who let them do this was Turner.
A through ball from the back and the teeniest of flicks from Lennon was enough to catch Turner stretching and napping, and he missed his block on the ball which allowed Defoe a lone run at goal, which he ended with a typically astute and emphatic finish past Myhill. Turner hasn’t been directly culpable for an opposition goal probably since Colchester away during the darkest of the Parkinson days, unless you count the penalty he gave away at Swansea in the Carling Cup last year. Still, it did happen and we were 3-1 down and way, way out of our depth when the half time whistle sounded.
Nick Barmby replaced Mouyokolo, a central defender who simply isn’t a right back (but then again, aside from the seemingly untrustworthy Nathan Doyle, who is in the City squad?) and slotted into the midfield with Mendy dropping back. Mendy at right back, yeah, that’ll work…
Spurs began at a thousand miles an hour again, with Benoit Assou-Ekotto charging at full tilt down the left flank and pulling back for Keane, whose miskicked shot nearly found a way in thanks to Boateng’s half block, half panicky clearance. Shortly afterwards, Turner again was made to look almost ordinary when Keane’s sublime dummy sent our star defender to ground and allowed the Tottenham skipper a challengeless run down the flank, but his cross to Defoe was splendidly cut out by Anthony Gardner.
City rally, a tad. Must have been the heat or something. Hunt did well to force a corner after impressive work with the willing Folan, and from it Barmby took a tumble but no penalty was awarded. City won a free kick which Geovanni – as quiet in the second half as any footballing saviour could ever be – swiped down Cudicini’s line of sight and presented no problems for the Italian stopper at all. Kamel Ghilas received raucous applause as he came on for Boateng as City fans sought something, anything, to cheer. Little more of a cheery nature was coming City’s way though, with Geovanni’s header forcing a tip-over from Cudicini and Folan scuffing a shot under pressure down the inside left channel. Lennon had, meanwhile, fed the hat-trick seeking Defoe who was denied by Turner’s last ditch block and then the England striker missed another chance, slamming a shot well wide from a promising position.
City get a corner. Hunt takes, Ghilas challenges but Tottenham clear and that incredible pace of the counter takes over again. Lennon flies down the flank and crosses perfectly for Keane to flick a nonchalant header beyond Myhill for their fourth of the night. It was a footballing lesson, and everyone knew it.
Peter Crouch then came on for Keane and almost immediately came close to adding to the tally when his firm header from Lennon’s cross was aimed right at Myhill, but soon a fifth was coming, well into injury time. Again it was a counter, perhaps of less urgency than before, but little could be done about Lennon’s divine touch back to the sprinting Defoe who got every sinew of leg strength he had preserved behind a stunning shot which had Myhill beaten all ends up, and earned the ruthless striker a match ball. Done and well and truly dusted.
It’s only the second game, and just as we could say that getting anything at Chelsea was a tall order, certainly one could add that Tottenham, improving at full pelt under Harry Redknapp, was also at the harder end of the list of possible scalps for the season, even though it seemed winnable and we had alleged advantage of being at home. But this was a devastating performance by both teams – Tottenham looked devastating, City were left devastated. Saturday might be more like it, as it’s Bolton Wanderers. But hang on, there’s that wretchedly skilled goalkeeper of theirs…
It’d be nice to have Geovanni on the pitch, Hunt to have real support and an actual right back in the right back position by the time that game comes round, and it’d be even nicer to suppose that City will have had the subtle blend of arms round shoulders and boots up fundaments required after a display like this to make sure there’s the right kind of reaction at the weekend. Try not to worry just yet… (MR)