As Basel celebrated their victory last night, a couple of feelings struck me. The first was pride: It was far from a perfect performance but it was a display of immense courage, particularly in extra time, and it’s a while since a Spurs side ‘left it all out there’ in that manner. The second was a sense that, one I’ve had since AVB’s Tottenham first took shape, this team differs significantly in personality to any of the notable Spurs sides in recent times. Even when demonstrating one of the defining characteristics of our club, the ability to sustain hope just long enough to inflict maximum disappointment, there was subtle but telling evidence of a different kind of team.
Like so many evenings that end in despair, it started well enough. Where first leg leads left us uncertain in our approach in Lyon and Milan, the 2-2 draw at the Lane simplified things for us. No need to over-commit, we simply had to try and win the game. We were diligent in midfield as Holtby, playing deeper, excelled in possession; Parker was at his most disciplined. We waited for our moment and it came. Dempsey capitalised on a poor back pass and slotted into an empty net after beating the keeper. Patient in the early exchanges and then potent when the opportunity arose. Little flair or pace but robustly technical and vigilant. So far, so pleasingly un-Spurs like.
Unfortunately, that lasted 3 minutes.
Dembele, mystifyingly poor before being taken off, gave the ball away and El-Nenny and Streller fed Salah, who hit the ball early past Friedel. Early in the second half we conceded a needless corner from which Friedel parried to Dragovic, leaving us to trail 1-2. We had surrendered a position of authority almost entirely by our own doing. Ah, Spurs! Welcome back old friend! We missed you!
The longer the half went on, the further Basel retreated, perhaps paying our attacking threat a compliment it didn’t deserve, while we kept pressing for an equalizer. Carroll impressed with poise and desire. Sigurdsson played like a central player out wide, albeit one absolutely determined to make it work. With 8 minutes left, Huddlestone, on in place of Parker, failed to lift a poor free kick past the first man. Set pieces seemed our best chance of scoring but before the sense of opportunity wasted could sink in, it came back to him, and this time he found a better delivery. More importantly, he found a defence that had switched off. In truth all 4 goals in the game were gifts. Dempsey controlled and stabbed instinctively through the goalkeeper to level.
In poaching two scruffy goals that no one else in the squad would have scored, whilst offering nothing else apart from effort, the American managed to show both his value to the team and why many feel he has none. He’s a likeable player who always gives his all for the team- it’s the chairman who should take the blame for his failure. A good signing is about more than beating another club to the signature of a good player at a good price. His style jars with our desire to move the ball quickly and there’s little he or the manager can do about it. We’re seemingly getting everything we can out of him.
Back to the game though- through sheer force of will we’d gotten back into the tie. No swashbuckling or moments of individual brilliance, just an excellent work ethic and a stubborn refusal to accept it wasn’t to be our night. Almost a complete inversion of the traditional Tottenham traits. As full-time neared we even looked like we might nick it, and certainly looked favourites when going into extra time.
But, with gun in hand and enemy faltering our aim turned, in a way that only Tottenham can, unerringly towards our own foot. Vertonghen, worryingly sloppy in recent weeks, got caught in no mans land and having decided he had no option but to bring Streller down, a straight red was inevitable. We can only guess what went through his mind. Speculation he may have backed Lloris to come and sweep up is just that. Perhaps he felt a winning goal at that point was game over, but with 10 men we still had a chance. Whatever the thought process, better positioning and concentration would have prevented the problem arising. The effect of tiredness is impossible to quantify, but it’s hard not to think it played its part.
We were our own worst enemy once again.
With extra-time came not an implosion, but resilience, determination and heart. Dawson, ragged and heroic in equal parts over the 120 minutes, was tailor made for these situations. Carroll was tireless as we chased the win. It’s too easy to assume that a player who impressed as a substitute should have started, often that means the manager used him correctly. Carroll’s composure and accurate passing are useful things to introduce into a match, but, he really is pressing for a starting place at a time when others are either tiring or clearly less able in possession. Holtby kept running long after his body failed him. Walker, so often maligned this season, had a fine game. They pressed us back in the 2nd half of extra-time but went closest with long range shots. The first 2 penalties were both saveable. They saved ours, we didn’t save theirs and so quickly it was over, but the fight the players showed shouldn’t be lost amongst the hurt and frustration of the penalty kicks.
Classic Spurs? Superficially, yes. But there was evidence this team may yet be able to outgrow some old stereotypes.
They showed an admirable refusal to accept their fate until they simply had nothing left. The task now is to try and prevent this being an epitaph for the whole season.