By Jay Jaffa
With a smirk and a rub of his shoulders, Andre Villas-Boas just managed to conceal his smile as he revealed Aaron Lennon's imminent return to the Tottenham first XI ahead of the trip to Wigan. There is no other way of saying it; Spurs have sorely missed the rapid winger's presence during an arduous spell of results. A surprise two-legged loss to Basel in the Europa League and a home draw with Everton had their season on the ropes, until an overpowering 10 minutes saw them defeat Manchester City 3-1 last Sunday.
Their only win in the three-week spell since Lennon's injury (sustained in the 2-2 draw with Basel) coincided with the return of this season's superstar, Tottenham's talisman, Gareth Bale, who kick-started the comeback against City with a majestic assist and equally-sublime third goal. Yet for the particularly pessimistic, glass half-empty Spurs fans, Bale's brilliance must end somewhere.
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Most of Tottenham's recent highs have been a product of, or in full view of Lennon, and the travelling fans on Sunday will be all too aware of the relevance of his return. Never one for great goal or assist returns - often the stick to beat him with - his game is as much about what he does off the ball than on it. Paradoxically, his defensive work is up there with the best in the country. Rarely does Lennon lose track of an overlapping full-back, as Kyle Walker would no doubt attest.
Perhaps even more crucial is the space he creates in the final third. As Roberto Mancini's side ruthlessly showed in a comfortable first hour in Tottenham, marking Bale was an elementary task when he was flanked by inverted 'wingers' Clint Dempsey and Gylfi Sigurdsson. As the pair have shown over the course of the campaign, they can be utilised from wide positions provided the man on the other flank is holding their width.
Without Lennon, Spurs felt claustrophobic, predictably narrow and subsequently caused Bale problems by clogging the central space he has come to call home. Lennon alleviates such difficulties by vigorously holding his position. Whether he receives the ball or not is equally irrelevant - just the threat of an opponent with searing pace accumulating chalk on their boots is enough to have a full-back hold a yard deeper or wider.
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There is a sense amongst the home faithful that his contribution goes unrecognised, that his peripheral status as an England makeweight sullies the good name he has earned under the White Hart Lane lights. That makes little difference to the reverence emanating from the stands - a fan favourite almost from the get-go, there are few more popular players than this veteran of over 300 games in the Lilywhite shirt.
In his eight years he has evolved his game considerably. The jet-heeled speedster of his teenage years gave way to a more disciplined, cautious wideman for a time and although his impact dulled, his value to the club steadily rose.
Lennon is now approaching what should be his peak. Injuries have often walked the same road as him, yet he has featured more often this season than last, while his attacking statistics appear to show that he is embracing Villas-Boas' change in approach. His care in the final third is improving, most notably the accuracy of his passing and, although his crossing accuracy has diminished - this is more attributable to the system (4-2-3-1 v 4-4-2) and Emmanuel Adebayor's reluctance to fill the penalty box - he is certainly rediscovering the form of a few seasons past.
With five games to go, it is make or break time for Tottenham. Their rivals aren't here to make up the numbers and Spurs will likely have to win at Stamford Bridge. Fortunately, Spurs not only have Bale, but the smoke-and-mirror style of the elusive Lennon. If Villas-Boas can coax five 90 minutes from Lennon, even the glass half-empty folk will find it hard not to imagine Champions League football back at the Lane.
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