Tottenham pay the penalty against Basel
Fightback in vain as Swiss go through to Europa League semi-finals after shootout
Basel 2 Tottenham 2 (4-4 on agg; aet, Basel win 4-1 on penalties)
It has been a gripping journey for Tottenham Hotspur and amid the drama, the intrigue and the headline grabbling plotlines – and Jan Vertonghen’s late sending off for a last-man foul on Marco Streller – they have helped to show the sometimes maligned Europa League in a positive light for English eyes.
Ultimately it was all in vain as they went out 4-1 on penalties after a gruelling period of extra time with ten men. Tom Huddlestone and Emmanuel Adebayor missing for the London side as Basel scored all four of their kicks.
For much of the second half at a rain-swept St Jakob-Park, it felt as though it might not be their night. Rank bad defensive errors had pinned them onto the back foot. And yet this team does not know when it is beaten and they showed tremendous character to battle back to force extra-time, allied to no little quality.
The substitute Huddlestone’s racking crossfield pass exposed Basel and with only eight minutes remaining and Tottenham starting into the abyss, Clint Dempsey took an assured touched with his chest and finished with a devastating stab of his left boot. Andre Villas-Boas leapt with delight on the touchline.
Dempsey's first goal of the evening had followed a shocking aberration from the Basel centre-half Fabian Schar but Tottenham were also nervous at the back. Mousa Dembele, who for much of the season has been outstanding, erred with a poor pass that set in motion Mohamed Salah’s equaliser while Brad Friedel’s parry from a corner paved the way for Aleksander Dragovic to finish. But Tottenham kept their composure and as Basel lost theirs, they forced the extra period.
Basel had been able to smell the semi-finals after the result at White Hart Lane and the excitement among their supporters verged on the feverish. The big-match atmosphere was set at the outset, as the rain teemed down and Basel chased history. Never before had they reached the last four of a European competition. No Swiss club had achieved the feat since Grasshoppers Zurich in 1978.
The absence for Tottenham had been almost as long, dating to 1984, when they won this tournament in its previous guise of the Uefa Cup. The yearning for a repeat has driven Andre Villas-Boas and coloured his debut season in north London. The stakes were tantalising and Tottenham's determination, having come this far, was palpable.
Tottenham have found it more difficult away from home in the Europa League this season than they have domestically, largely because European teams do not trade in the blood-and-bluster of the Premier League and they tend to ensure that they do not over-commit to leave themselves vulnerable to quick counters. The big pre-match question for Basel, as they held the upper hand with their away goals, was whether they would stick or twist.
There was a caginess, an edginess, about the early running, influenced by the fear of making a mistake. The pitch did not help. Surface water and cut-up tufts meant that the players had to watch their footing and concentrate on the basics.
The conditions played a part in Tottenham's unpicking of the deadlock, although Fabian Schar will nonetheless have bad dreams about the manner in which he misjudged his sliding challenge as he attempted to cut out Jan Vertonghen's throughball, which was intended for Clint Dempsey. Schar succeeded only in teeing up Dempsey who, with Yann Sommer committed, kept his composure to round the goalkeeper and roll home with his left-foot.
The lead did not last. Mousa Dembele, who was pressed higher up the pitch than has been typical, had settled well and he caught the eye when he stepped past challengers. But it was a loose square ball from him that allowed Basel to spring forward to equalise. Marco Streller ushered in Mohamed Salah, whose desire to unload quickly and without backlift made for a toe-poked effort. It was highly effective, with Brad Friedel beaten low to his left. Flares lit the scene. The game had come to life.
Salah was the danger. He almost tiptoed through after his equaliser and Kyle Naughton was later booked for pulling him back. Dembele forced Sommer into a flying 36th minute save and it was too close to call at the interval.
The no-holds-barred commitment was epitomised by Serey Die, who was quite happy to leave markers on his opponents while Michael Dawson, characteristically, gave no quarter. Kyle Walker was accused of treading on Park Joo Ho as he recovered his position in the first-half but the Basel full-back was not hurt. The game was niggly and the referee Olegario Benquerenca was busy.
Disaster struck for Tottenham shortly after the restart and if the first concession had felt avoidable, there was a grisly undercurrent when they fell behind. From Valentin Stocker’s near-post corner, Schar flicked on in front of a pack of white shirts and Friedel could do no more than pat the ball out to Dragovic, who scored from close-range. It is safe to say that there are one or two mountains in this country. Tottenham had another one to scale and ultimately it proved too high.