Popov red leaves Clarke spitting mad
West Bromwich 0 Tottenham H 1:The game started slipping away from West Bromwich Albion the moment Goran Popov aimed a mouthful of spit in the direction of Kyle Walker and made sure that a difficult week for his club would take another ignominious turn.
It was a brainless act, the kind of incident that can tarnish a footballer’s reputation forever, and the short-term impact was devastating for a team who have taken only one point out of a possible 18.
A fairly even game suddenly became a story of almost unremitting pressure, and Steve Clarke’s side are on the kind of run that made it almost inevitable they would crumple at some point.
The moment arrived midway through the second half, Gareth Bale adding another stunning finish to his recent portfolio with a rocket of a shot into the roof of the net. It was his 11th goal of the season, and another demonstration of his uncommon power on the ball.
Bale had been a constant menace, operating in a more central position than usual, and his ability to drive past opponents and penetrate the home defences always made him the likely match-winner.
As far as Popov is concerned, however, it is difficult to know what was going through his mind.
Afterwards Clarke also had to field questions about his captain, Jonas Olsson, apparently gesturing towards West Brom’s supporters and spitting. With the Peter Odemwingie affair still on his mind, this was as angry as Clarke has appeared at any stage of the season.
Had Popov apologised?
“I didn’t give him the chance to speak,” he replied. “I spoke.”
Popov’s loss of control had emanated from something as innocuous as shepherding the ball out for a goal-kick. He was aggrieved by the pressure Walker was applying from behind and, as they started running back upfield, the two players started exchanging words. It was the kind of incident that happens in most matches – except Popov went way too far.
Low as it gets
Spitting is regarded as just about as low as it gets in sport and, with so many television cameras around, there was no way the Macedonian was going to get away with it.
As it turned out the referee, Mark Clattenburg, had seen it anyway, immediately bringing out the red card.
As Andre Villas-Boas observed, Walker showed great control. It was “horrible and nasty,” said the Spurs manager.
That was three minutes into the second half and from then on Tottenham took control for a victory that was marred only by Jermain Defoe’s ankle injury. Defoe could be out for three weeks – a “big setback”, Villas-Boas put it – and there were some needled chants from the away end pointing out that they “should have signed a striker”.
Instead they had Bale alongside Clint Dempsey, another player better known as a midfielder. Yet Villas-Boas pointed out that Emmanuel Adebayor would be back soon from the African Cup of Nations and he did not seem too despondent about the lack of other options.
“Don’t forget,” he said, “the world champions don’t always play with a striker.”
Tottenham did not have to play like Spain to win and, though there were considerable mitigating features, Clarke might still be alarmed by the response of his team. They were always going to be subjected to intense pressure but they looked low on confidence by the end and there was virtually no response to Bale’s goal.
A late free-kick gave them the chance to pile everyone into the opposition penalty area, including their own goalkeeper Ben Foster, but there was little in the way of refinement.
Clarke was of the opinion that West Brom had been the better side throughout the first half and, though it was marginal, they certainly had the chances to have been ahead before Popov changed the entire match. Hugo Lloris twice did enough to keep out Shane Long after the striker had run clear. Romelu Lukaku was a key player in the first half and Graham Dorrans’s ability on the ball also stood out.
Bale, however, always looked like he had the beating of West Brom’s defence. One run took out three players before Foster tipped the shot over. That left foot is capable of some special moments and when he let fly again in the 67th minute it was the sheer power that beat Foster.
Blame the officials
The home supporters tried to blame the officials, angrily demanding to know why Lewis Holtby, Defoe’s replacement, had not been flagged as offside in the buildup. Television replays confirmed the new arrival from Schalke had been level and, as Clarke lamented, the blame should all be directed towards Popov.