By Liam Twomey at Craven Cottage
Just over a year ago, with Harry Redknapp in hospital recovering from heart surgery, Tottenham escaped from Craven Cottage with a 3-1 win, having somehow survived a second-half Fulham battering. The final score highlighted the value of clinical finishing rather than the true run of play. This time the win was more deserved, but the enduring theme remained the same, much to the delight of Andre-Villas Boas.
The young Portuguese has endured much sniping from the media during his first few months at White Hart Lane, receiving a preposterous amount of criticism for the slightest setback and lukewarm praise for significant success. It is clear he is still paying for the cold and aloof vibe he gave off as Chelsea manager to journalists used to the warm and cuddly figure of predecessor Carlo Ancelotti. At Spurs, his biggest crime is strangely similar – that he is not Harry Redknapp.
But in recent times Tottenham appear to be more ruthless under his guidance. Last season, Redknapp’s celebrated and swashbuckling side had Manchester United on the ropes at home for long periods, and yet ended up losing 3-1. In September, Villas-Boas’ crop went to the lion’s den of Old Trafford and impressively ended a winless run which stretched back to 1989.
At the Emirates earlier this month, the humiliating defeat to Arsenal was mitigated by the almost impossible handicap of playing with 10 men for over an hour following Emmanuel Adebayor’s reckless sending off. At the Etihad six days earlier, a spirited Spurs resistance had been undone by a piece of predatory brilliance from Sergio Aguero and a moment of creative genius from David Silva. There have been setbacks, certainly, but no crisis.
That the faith of Villas-Boas’ men in their young and principled manager remained unshaken was highlighted by back-to-back wins over West Ham and Liverpool which required quality and grit in equal measure, and ensured Spurs headed to Craven Cottage with confidence restored.
Fulham did their best to make it hard. Their underrated midfield kept Spurs on the alert defensively while Mladen Petric buzzed around dangerously and Dimitar Berbatov, captain for the day against the club at which he first seduced the Premier League, threatened to unlock the door with numerous sublime touches. Strangely though, for a man who had netted 23 times in his previous 27 league games, the classy Bulgarian never troubled Hugo Lloris.
Thanks to a combination of wasteful finishing from the hosts and disciplined defending from the visitors, parity was maintained, and only the lack of a finishing touch prevented Clint Dempsey, booed relentlessly by the Craven Cottage faithful, from drawing first blood at the other end.
Tottenham embarked on the second half with renewed purpose, but the contest remained one in which only a moment to remember or one to forget could make the difference. Some 10 minutes after the interval it duly arrived, when Mark Schwarzer was deceived by the swerve, dip and bounce of Sandro’s hopeful 30-yard drive and Spurs were gifted the lead.
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Gylfi Sigurdsson, replacing the injured Bale, delivered a lively cameo, culminating in the neat drop of the shoulder 18 minutes from time which left Philippe Senderos fighting for his balance and Jermain Defoe with a simple tap-in to make the game safe. Five minutes later, Dempsey capped a virtuoso display with a slide-rule pass which would not have shamed Xavi, and Defoe finished with the kind of calm which has yielded 130 goals in two spells at White Hart Lane.
Defoe has now netted nine times in the Premier League this season. His all-round performances also indicate that, at 30, Villas-Boas has managed to succeed where so many managers before him have failed and turn a one-dimensional poacher into someone capable of effectively leading the line alone. Moreover, his ability to be decisive after a fairly anonymous first half typified the ruthlessness Villas-Boas seems to be preaching.
“Sometimes strikers can look distant from the game, but when the team sets them up, it’s important for them to have that clinical touch,” Villas-Boas said after the match. “Jermain just has it, and he’s having an amazing season with us so far.”
Tottenham now sit fourth in the Premier League, level on points with Chelsea – a team perhaps suffering more than any other from the lack of a finisher of the calibre of Defoe. But such concerns no longer plague Villas-Boas. If the ruthless streak Defoe and his team-mates appear to be acquiring continues, the Spurs boss will be a very happy man.
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