FOX Soccer Exclusive
Time to crown Spurs Europa favorites
Tottenham Hotspur’s purple patch goes on. Unbeaten in 12 Barclays Premier League matches, Andre Villas-Boas’s side took control of its Europa League last 16 tie with a 3-0 win over a hapless Internazionale at White Hart Lane with a performance of bristling purpose, pace and confidence.
Gareth Bale, as so often in recent weeks, was the key after six minutes to guide Gylfi Sigurdsson’s header just inside Samir Handanovic’s left-hand post. With Bale finding space between Inter’s defensive and midfield lines, Spurs pounded Inter, fizzing the ball about in the Italian side’s half always looking dangerous. The second goal came after 18 minutes with Mousa Dembele spreading the ball play right to Aaron Lennon and although Jermain Defoe got in the way of a low cross that seemed aimed at Sigurdsson, the Icelander followed in to score after Handanovic had beaten away Defoe’s effort.
Jan Vertonghen fluffed one header from a Bale cross early in the second half but eight minutes in the same combination produced the third. The only negative for Spurs was the yellow card Bale collected for a dive in the first half that will keep him out of the return leg through suspension. Given Spurs’ lead, though, it might not be a bad game in which to serve a suspension. Needless to say, Spurs are the only English side left that looks like a real contender in the competition.
"It was a very good performance and a great night of European football for us," Villas-Boas said after the match. "We really felt that at half-time we could have gone further - there were some important moments of the game for Inter Milan too but we had so many opportunities - we really deserved to win.
"Unfortunately for us it doesn't mean we are through yet, it is a difficult place to go and I just hope we can do enough to qualify. I think the result is what it is and it is well deserving for Tottenham and still prestigious."
Newcastle United produced another away performance of great defensive diligence to draw 0-0 with Anzhi Makhachkala, a team that had won each of its previous seven home ties in European competition. It was an ugly game of few chances, played in temperatures of -4 degrees Celsius in a stadium not even a quarter full. The Magpies, playing without an orthodox striker, expertly frustrated Guus Hiddink’s side.
“I wouldn’t say we’re favorites because they have good counter attacking possibilities,” said a delighted Newcastle manager Alan Pardew, who vowed to keep his “lucky” beard at least until the second leg next Thursday. “The mood in our stadium will be very difficult for Anzhi to fight with. We didn’t really have to fight the crowd which really set us up.”
Chelsea’s season of indifference, meanwhile, continued in Bucharest, where it was beaten 1-0 by Steaua Bucuresti in front of a passionate capacity crowd at the highly impressive new National Stadium. Raul Rusescu got the only goal, drilling in a low penalty after the Russian referee Sergey Karasev had decided he had been pulled down by Ryan Bertrand as he leapt for Iasmin Latvlevici’s cross. There didn’t seem to be a huge amount of pressure, but the fullback’s arm certainly went across the forward’s torso.
“To give a penalty in this situation, and especially when you have so many referees in their positions, it is soft,” said Chelsea manager Rafa Benitez. "In these kind of games and this kind of competition, if you don't score away it's always more difficult."
In a game of few chances, Chelsea was desperately flat, lacking both bite and cohesion. It seems almost cruel to keep mentioning it but Fernando Torres had another poor game as Demba Ba and Victor Moses were both rested for Sunday’s FA Cup quarterfinal against Manchester United. His confidence is so shot now that at one point, as a through-ball was played to him, rather than attempting the touch that might have set him through on goal, he tried to lay the ball back to an onrushing midfielder – except that none of them were onrushing because it was such a bizarre thing to do.
“I was a little bit disappointed with the result because I felt we could have scored, but now we have to do everything at Stamford Bridge,” added Benitez. "It will be difficult because they are quite organized, they work very hard and they can counter-attack.”
None of the three Russian sides remaining so much as scored. Rubin Kazan matched Anzhi’s result, drawing away to Levante 0-0 in a game that featured a red card for each side; Cristian Ansaldi for Rub after 56 minutes; followed two minutes later by Michel. Zenit St. Petersburg retains an outside chance of progressing after a 2-0 defeat away to Basel. Marceloa Diaz put the Swiss side ahead 10 minutes from time and Alexander Frei doubled that advantage with an injury-time penalty.
Lazio took a huge step towards the quarterfinal with a 2-0 first-leg victory away to Stuttgart. Counter-attacking ruthlessly, they took a 21st-minute lead as William Kvist and Arthur Boka both missed chances to clear as a rebound off Bruno Pereirinha set up Ederson to turn and fire in a low shot. Ogenyi Onazi ran from halfway to add a second 11 minutes into the second half.
Benfica maintained its fine recent run of results with a fortuitous 1-0 win over Bordeaux who were on top when Rodrigo’s shot hit goalkeeper Cedric Carrasso and rolled over the line. Meanwhile at Doosan Arena, Fenerbahce produced another fine away performance to end Viktoria Plzen’s nine-game unbeaten streak at home thanks to Pierre Webo’s 81st-minute header after Moussa Sow’s shot had been blocked giving the Turkish side a 1-0 lead from the away leg.