By Liam Twomey at White Hart Lane
The Christmas period is traditionally a time when the fates bestow goodwill on all men but, despite seeing his side triumph more comfortably over Sunderland than the 1-0 scoreline suggested at home on Sunday, Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp could be forgiven for feeling the men of White Hart Lane have been a little short-changed.
For although Spurs deservedly rose back up to third in the Premier League with a performance and result which highlighted strength of character as much as depth of quality after a week of domestic and European frustrations, significant injuries to Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon have arrived on the cusp of a clash with Chelsea which could help define their campaign.
The flying Welshman was a surprise omission from Sunday’s teamsheet, having been ruled out at the eleventh hour after failing to recover from an ankle sprain sustained in training.
Striker Jermain Defoe was also absent, courtesy of a hamstring injury aggravated in Thursday’s hollow Europa League triumph over Shamrock Rovers. Lennon did make it onto the field, and performed with trademark pace and verve on the right flank for almost half an hour before falling victim to the same misfortune.
Shorn of three players instrumental in their recent good run of form, it was to Spurs’ great credit that three important points were nevertheless acquired, and nonetheless deserved.
Redknapp’s men dominated proceedings against a disciplined but limited Sunderland side, and only some wasteful finishing from the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor and Luka Modric ensured the final scoreline did not adequately reflect their superiority.
Brad Friedel put on another faultless display between the sticks, although his required contribution was extremely limited by having returning club captain Ledley King marshaling the defence in front of him with characteristic composure and assurance.
In midfield, Scott Parker and Sandro out-muscled, out-passed and overwhelmed the bewildered duo of James Colback and David Vaughan while Modric and Rafael van der Vaart occasionally dazzled with their speed of thought and foot.
Up front, the mobility, work-rate and physicality of Adebayor and Roman Pavlyuchenko kept the Sunderland defence in a constant state of high alert, and the Russian’s second-half winner was almost surgical in its precision.
Back on track | Pavlyuchenko's second-half strike was enough for victory
But, for all the positives, this was not the Tottenham which neutrals have come to admire and opponents have grown to fear.
With Modric and Van der Vaart nominally operating on the flanks in place of Bale and Lennon, the north Londoners’ subsequent narrow midfield meant they could not reproduce the fast, fluid, expansive attacking football which has battered visiting teams into submission all season long at White Hart Lane.
Instead, dependent on full-backs Benoit Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker for attacking width, Spurs inevitably found themselves trying to negotiate their way through Sunderland’s massed ranks in the middle of the pitch, searching for gaps which all too often simply weren’t there.
More worryingly, this narrower system left the home side vulnerable to fast counterattacks in wide areas, and Martin O’Neill’s men had enough joy in this regard to suggest an upset would not have been inconceivable. When Pavlyuchenko finally broke the deadlock on the hour mark, it was relief as much as satisfaction which permeated White Hart Lane.
Back to winning ways they may be, but Spurs’ injury problems could not have been worse timed.
Neither Bale nor Lennon are thought likely to be fit for the visit of Chelsea on Thursday evening when, win, lose or draw, the north Londoners’ top four and possible title aspirations will be placed into clearer context.
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Victory over Manchester City and a subsequent lacklustre draw away at Wigan have highlighted the full spectrum of performances the young Portuguese’s ‘New Chelsea’ are capable of, and there is no telling which will manifest itself on Thursday.
Bigger still for the Spurs manager is the timely return of captain and talisman King to a serviceable level of fitness.
Chronic knee problems may have forced the 31-year-old to sacrifice the quantity of his appearances in recent times, but certainly not the quality. Tottenham are unbeaten in each of their skipper’s 10 Premier League appearances this season, and have won all nine in which he has lasted 90 minutes.
With the team weakened by the loss of Bale and Lennon, it is clear the defensive foundation provided by King and the returning Younes Kaboul from suspension will be fundamental to any hopes Spurs have of vanquishing Chelsea on Thursday evening.
It might be time for Redknapp to pray that, despite having their wings clipped, his side still have enough to ensure a white Christmas.
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