FOX Soccer Exclusive
Can Tottenham cope without star duo?
It’s extraordinary how clubs develop identities, how often they seem doomed to live out eternally iterations of their past; Sunderland will exist always on a mezzanine between Premier League and the Championship; Chelsea will always be about to sack or recover from sacking a manager; Arsenal will always disguise a poor season with a positive ending and the promise of transfer spending to come; and Tottenham, poor Tottenham, will always find a way to fail from even the most positive position.
One FA Cup fourth round replay from February 2004 feels emblematic. At halftime, Spurs led 3-0 against Manchester City who had Joey Barton sent off. It was impossible to lose, yet Spurs lost – and lost so emphatically that by the end there was an awful inevitability about the whole business. Two years later, it went into its final game of the season, away to West Ham United, a point clear of Arsenal who faced Wigan Athletic. A win would have secured Champions League football for the following season but a bout of food poisoning hit the squad and it lost 2-1. Last season, it led Arsenal by 12 points at the beginning of February and still managed to finish behind it. Collapse always lies in wait.
This season seemed to be going so well. A run of 12 games without defeat, culminating in a win over Arsenal, saw Spurs seven points clear of its north London rivals with 10 games remaining. It had beaten Internazionale 3-0 in the first leg of its Europa League last-16 tie. Champions League qualification seemed almost a given, with the distinct possibility of a first European trophy since 1984. But this is Tottenham. The six games since have brought just one victory.
Spurs seemed to have the easiest of the Europa League quarterfinal draws, but it fell 2-0 behind to Basel before struggling back to draw 2-2. That means it goes to Switzerland (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 3 p.m. ET) for the second leg effectively needing a win to reach the semifinal, and it goes without the injured Jermain Defoe, Aaron Lennon and Gareth Bale. Sunday’s 2-2 home draw with Everton was the first game it has played since November 2009 without either Bale or Lennon in the starting lineup and the result, not surprisingly, was a performance shorn of pace and inventiveness. Gylfi Sigurdsson, who swept home the equalizer with four minutes remaining, spoke of Tottenham’s “spirit and determination,” but it will take more than that in St. Jakob-Park.
Basel hasn’t lost a league game since November and is unbeaten in all competitions at home since losing to CFR Cluj in the Champions League in August. At White Hart Lane in the first leg, it proved itself a technically accomplished, organized and fluid side, the link-up play between the experienced forward Marco Streller and the two wide men, Mohamed Salah on the right and Valentin Stocker on the left, caused Spurs so much discomfort that Benoit Assou-Ekotto had to be withdrawn before the hour.
The only negative in Salah’s nimble performance was the chance he wasted, to add to four clear opportunities spurned in the victory over Zenit St. Petersburg in the previous round. "If Mohamed could score as well, he wouldn’t be here anymore," the Basel coach Murat Yakin commented dryly. "Or he would not have come here in the first place."
Salah, a 20-year-old Egypt international signed from Arab Contractors last summer, is aware of the problem. "Sometimes the ball just doesn't want to go in, no matter how often you try," he said. "But as a team we are on a very good run and we have a chance to make the semis – that is the most important thing. In five years' time, maybe I will take those chances and score."
The other two English sides remaining in the competition find themselves with exactly opposing tasks. Chelsea go to Moscow looking to protect a 3-1 lead against a Rubin Kazan (live, FOX Soccer, Thursday, 12 p.m. ET) side that disappointed in its openness last Thursday.
However, Rafael Benitez has problems in defense, with Ryan Bertrand (virus) joining Ashley Cole (hamstring) and Gary Cahill (knee) on the sidelines, so either Paulo Ferreira, (who has made just one sub appearance this season) or 18-year-old Dutchman Nathan Ake are likely to start.
Papiss Cisse’s last-minute winner against Fulham in the Premier League on Sunday was greeted rapturously, not least of all by Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, who threw himself into the crowd. It wasn’t just that the win lifted Newcastle five points clear of the relegation zone; it’s that the comfort zone allows it to commit everything to overcoming Benfica, to chase glory without giving too much thought to Sunday’s derby against stricken Sunderland.
"We just need to get ourselves in a good position," said Pardew. "If we can get a goal with 20 minutes to go, we can do it - that's the agenda for me. Our fans need to understand on Thursday, in the quarterfinal of the Europa League, that if we go gung-ho looking for two quick goals, we are just going to get killed. They [Benfica] have got real quality on the break. We have got to be very intelligent and we have got to be patient."
Only two teams – Steaua Bucharest and Fulham – have ever overturned a similar first-leg deficit in the competition. At least Newcastle has an away goal, though, which is more than can be said if Lazio, who seems to have an all but impossible task looking to turn around last week’s 2-0 defeat at Fenerbahce in the other quarterfinal.
More Stories From Jonathan Wilson