Tottenham’s horizons broaden with Gareth Bale
A win over Manchester City vital to reignite the momentum for Champions League spot
Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League collision with Manchester City tomorrow is not about one man. It is about a finely-tuned tactical battle, tension, deep significance and heavyweight recent history. Yet from a Tottenham point of view at least, the spectre of one man appears to have transcended it all.
The club’s players and staff have come to joke about the Gareth Bale effect; specifically, the manner in which no interview or press conference can be allowed to pass without mention of him. They have an extremely valid point. Bale ticks an awful lot of boxes but consider the added extras for the manager Andre Villas-Boas’s media briefing yesterday afternoon.
Bale has just been named on the shortlist for the Professional Footballers’ Association’s Player of the Year and Young Player of the Year awards. He had given what Villas-Boas called “a big scare for everybody” when he rolled his ankle gruesomely on his previous appearance, at home to FC Basel in the Europa League quarter-final first leg two weeks ago and, having not played since, he had been a doubt for City’s visit.
His fitness has been newsworthy every day since Tottenham’s return to training on Tuesday, after a four-day break following the penalty shoot-out defeat at Basel. Tottenham were counting on him. Villas-Boas did not stand a chance.
He delivered the all-important bulletin with the rasping calm that has set the tone for his players’ preparations. Bale is “definitely up for selection”, having trained with the squad on Thursday and yesterday.
Picking him, Villas-Boas suggested, would not be a gamble. He offered praise to the club’s medical department. He resisted the temptation to perform a Ricky Villa-style celebration.
In other news, Jermain Defoe is back to fitness after an abdominal problem to present Villas-Boas with a teaser up front. Does he persist with Emmanuel Adebayor, who has shown signs of improvement and would be motivated against his former club? Aaron Lennon, though, has not trained because of knee trouble and is unlikely to feature, which is a major blow given the balance he brings to the team. William Gallas is still out with a calf injury.
But, back to Bale. Villas-Boas was happy to talk up his potential to galvanise the team and instil an element of anxiety in City. “Yes, I think it can,” Villas-Boas said. “We recognise the impact this player has had for us this season, the run of goals that he is on. It can have that factor. Having key players around and players who have been decisive, especially in this last part of the season, is always inspirational for everyone. It is good to have him back.”
Tottenham’s meetings with City in the latter part of the past three seasons have each been gripping and they have the capacity to inspire further, for good and bad reasons. The good for Tottenham came in the penultimate fixture of 2009/’10, in what was effectively a winner-takes-all play-off for Champions League qualification. Peter Crouch stretched to score in the 82nd minute at Eastlands, Tottenham were euphoric and Harry Redknapp got a soaking in the celebrations.
But the following year, the tables were turned. City entered the game, the season’s third last, in fourth position, knowing that a home win would guarantee them elevation to the Champions League. Tottenham, six points behind in sixth, needed victory to stay alive but Crouch’s own goal killed them. It was a seismic moment in City’s development.
“When you do it, you treasure those nights but when you miss out, as we did at City the year after, they are hard to take,” said the Tottenham captain, Michael Dawson. “We had a great journey the year we were in the Champions League and we want to be back playing in it, there’s no hiding it. We’ve got players in the dressingroom who want to achieve. We’ve been fantastic so far and, with six games left, we’ll keep fighting, keep performing and we’ll keep believing.”
Last season’s match in Manchester offered a barometer of City’s progress and Tottenham’s ability to fall agonisingly short. It was last January and City were top of the table, five points clear of Tottenham in third. At 2-2, Defoe stretched but he could not convert a last-gasp chance at the far post, which stood to fire the title talk at White Hart Lane. City went up to the other end, won a penalty and Mario Balotelli converted the winner.
When Bale was not being discussed yesterday, the pressure of the fixture was a hot topic. Villas-Boas suggested that City had enjoyed a feeling of liberation since it became clear they would lose their championship to Manchester United. “Probably, that is why they have been getting these great results and why they have been playing the great football that they play at the moment,” he said.
But there has been no let-up for Tottenham, who have wobbled as they have taken four points from an available 12 to slip into fifth place. A win over City feels vital to reignite the momentum, although Villas-Boas predicted that all of the Champions League hopefuls would drop points over the run-in. Twelve, he added, was the “minimum requirement” for his club. With Bale back, Tottenham’s horizons feel broader.