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Spurs preview: Reclaiming what's lost

Gareth Bale and Tottenham Hotspur will be focused on a return to Champions League.
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Andy Brassell

Andy Brassell is a regular contributor to FOXSoccer.com, covering Europe and the UEFA Champions League. He is also the author of All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League.

 
   
 

One year after making waves in Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur enters the 2011-12 campaign seeking to reclaim their spot amongst England's top four and Europe's elite. Here is FOX Soccer's look at Spurs' upcoming season, starting with a look back at the defining moment of 2010-11:

Since arriving in north London from PSV Eindhoven in summer 2008, Heurelho Gomes has lost his Tottenham career, won it back….and maybe lost it again on April 30, 2011, in the 45th minute at Stamford Bridge. The Brazilian goalkeeper has often driven manager Harry Redknapp to distraction with some scatterbrained handling, and the future looked bleak for Gomes when Redknapp signed the much-respected Carlo Cudicini from Chelsea in January 2009. Yet Gomes came back, and the reliability and all-round goodness of this family man from rural Brazil became a key constituent of a happy Spurs dressing room. Moreover, his magnificent performance in the April 2010 win over Arsenal was a big contributory factor in Tottenham’s Champions League qualification at the of the 2010-11 season.

If Tottenham was to make it two seasons in a row at Europe’s top table, it would have to do it the hard way. Having ceded ground to an improved Manchester City, Redknapp’s side knew it needed an unlikely win at champion Chelsea, surging back into the title race itself, to keep alive genuine hope of making fourth spot. When young Brazilian midfielder Sandro shocked Petr Cech (as well as his own manager) with a stunning drive into the top corner from range to put Spurs in front against the run of play on 19 minutes, the shock was on.

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE
PRESEASON PREDICTION

 
PL CLUB
4 Arsenal
5 Liverpool
6 Tottenham
7 Everton
8 Fulham


Spurs may be picked by FOX Soccer's editors and writers to finish at the bottom of the league's elite, but they are unquestionably a part of the league's stand out group. Nobody will be surprised if Tottenham is back in Champions League come summer 2012.

 

With the traveling fans from north London counting down the seconds until half-time with the valuable lead intact, Frank Lampard picked up the ball for the Blues in a central area. The England midfielder let fly from outside the penalty area - but straight at Gomes, the sort of shot that any goalkeeper fields 50 times per day in training. Yet the Tottenham man fumbled, and the ball squirmed under his body and towards the goal line. Fortunately for Gomes, he clawed the ball back a fraction before it crossed the line in its entirety. A relieved goalkeeper sprang to his feet, sought out the familiar figure of Gareth Bale on the left-hand side and threw the ball towards.

At least this is how the tale went from Gomes’ perspective – and from that of referee Andre Marriner, and many of the players. By the time he was aiming for Bale, assistant referee Mike Cairns was already charging back to the halfway line with his flag raised, signaling a goal; a fact belatedly acknowledged by Marriner and a throng of horrified, protesting Tottenham players, led by Vedran Corluka.

The incident was what TV sport was made for. A series of slow-motion replays were required before it became clear that most of the ball was over the line – but not all of it. It looked at first glance as if the ball had probably crossed into goal, so Cairns had effectively “guessed”, as Redknapp later lamented. An understandable error at game pace by the official, but a very costly one for Spurs – and a real lesson on the difference between convinced on the balance of probability and 100% sure. The momentum and mood of the match had changed. That Salomon Kalou sealed Chelsea’s win in the final minute of regulation time from a suspiciously offside-looking position simply added insult to injury.

TOTTENHAM SQUAD WATCH

 
MOST EXCITING Gareth Bale
MOST VALUABLE Luka Modric
BEST ACQUISITION Brad Friedel (Aston Villa)
OTHER INS None
LOSSES Jonathan Woodgate (Stoke City)
PROSPECT TO WATCH Souleymane Coulibaly
 

A draw to Blackpool and a loss at City followed, leaving Spurs beyond the table's top four, but to say that Tottenham is back where it started under last-coach-but-one Martin Jol - on the cusp of the Champions League – is an exaggeration, one that conveniently airbrushes the wonderful moments the side produced first in qualifying, and then in its stellar run to the quarter-final - Europe's final eight.

Yet there is a strong sense of frustration that the progress made in Europe last campaign can’t yet be followed up. Until last August, Tottenham was the richest club in European football never to have qualified for the Champions League. The club had only been in the European Cup once before, in 1962, losing to the great Benfica side containing Eusebio and Mario Coluna that went onto win the trophy twice in a row. “Tottenham will win this trophy in the next few years,” Benfica coach Bela Guttmann had said. Those words haunted Spurs for 45 years.

Missing out on fourth place has prompted a strong sense of self-analysis. Gomes may well be the first casualty of that. Even if his error should not have been punished with a goal, the fact remains that an awful bit of goalkeeping created the platform for the mistake to be made, and the incident underlines his fallibility. New arrival Brad Friedel may now be 40, but the man from Ohio combines being a behind-the-scenes father figure with a greater overall reliability in the place where it counts most – on the pitch. Unfortunately Redknapp’s wish to strengthen elsewhere is being stymied by his current inability to move on high-earning dead wood, such as David Bentley, Sebastien Bassong and Robbie Keane.

Despite the paralysis, expectations are high. That Tottenham took to the Champions League like a duck to water, playing with real élan and humbling champion Internazionale it only its second home group game, very quickly made a place of wonderful adventure seem like an assumed natural habitat. Redknapp did superbly to divert predators from among Europe’s giants away from the likes of Bale and Luka Modric but is now under real pressure to deliver or face the pick of his squad flying the nest. In late May last year, midfield maestro Modric was signing a new six-year contract; 14 months on, he is pining for a move to Chelsea.

AUGUST FIXTURES

 
DATE TIME OPPONENT
August 13 10:00 A.M. ET at Everton
August 22 3:00 P.M. ET at Manchester United
August 28 8:30 A.M. ET Manchester City
 

The real positive, both in terms of bragging rights and prospective Champions League qualification, is the declining status of Arsenal. In their now famous April 2010 victory over the Gunners, Tottenham clinched its first league win over its neighbor since November 1999. Now, it is unbeaten in four league games against Arsene Wenger’s side, with two wins and two draws. Spurs have outspent Arsenal for years, but the restlessness at White Hart Lane is far superseded by that currently pervading the atmosphere at the Emirates, with Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri keen to leave. The Gunners’ vulnerability means that Tottenham needs not necessarily be shut out of the top four by Manchester City’s establishment as a genuine force.

Sifting through options

On the pitch, Tottenham has impressed English Premier League fans with its commitment to attack under Redknapp, but it looks to be finally finding some defensive stability too. Friedel may be entering his fifth decade and has arrived on a free, but he is likely to be the rock that Spurs’ stability is built from. A consistent defense has taken shape, with Corluka and the excellent Benoit Assou-Ekotto filling the full-back positions. The central partnership of the improved Younes Kaboul and Michael Dawson has taken root and following the departure of Jonathan Woodgate, is not subject to the vain hope that the former England defender will return to his old form and fitness on a consistent basis.

Aaron Lennon and Bale provide rare pace and energy on the flanks to really stretch a game, and there are myriad of possibilities in central midfield. Probably the ideal would be Modric dictating play beside the imposing Tom Huddlestone. Huddlestone is an interesting figure, initially stereotyped by many as a defensive midfield ogre, but actually blessed with a sublime range of passing that would make former White Hart Lane legend Glenn Hoddle tip his hat. If Modric was to go, Tottenham would not be short of a passer or two. Jermaine Jenas has had a decent pre-season too, and if Wilson Palacios stays, he provides a rugged alternative.

The main development of Tottenham’s game last season was a simple one; get the ball into the box and when Peter Crouch nods down, have Rafael van de Vaart finish it. The Dutchman was an opportunistic bargain signing from Real Madrid, but did what many thought impossible via his imperious early season form – he converted Redknapp from 4-4-2 to going with a lone striker. While van der Vaart faded in the season’s coda, he remains the side’s most explosive goal threat. What Redknapp would ideally like is a more high-spec version of Crouch, who for all his admirable traits has scored just 12 league goals in two seasons since rejoining his boyhood club.

Roman Pavyluchenko could be the solution for now. He is not an orthodox target man, but his movement makes him a nuisance for defenders, and despite sporadically erratic finishing, would score more than Crouch from a comparable amount of games. This leaves Redknapp’s more squat strikers – Jermain Defoe, and maybe even the Under-17 World Cup sensation Souleymane Coulibaly, freshly signed from Siena – as pinch-hitters.

Diagnosis

The twice-yearly frenzy of transfer deadline day has become such a cult event for EPL fans that it is easy to forget that a quiet transfer window is often a blessing in disguise. Claudio Ranieri had the season that paved the way for Chelsea’s Abramovich-era successes in 2002-03, before the Russian arrived – on a minimal budget when Espanyol’s Quique De Lucas was his only signing. Working with what one has forges a team spirit more complicated to find when the training ground has a revolving door, something that Redknapp sides have certainly been accused of in the past. Clearly the coach will seek to buy in a few if he can, but Tottenham already has the ingredients to challenge the upper echelons, and is always a formidable – and entertaining – prospect at White Hart Lane. Fourth place awaits a reclaim.

Andy Brassell is the European correspondent for BBC 5Live's World Football Phone-In and a contributor to FOXSoccer.com. His work appears in titles including The Independent. Andy is also the author of 'All Or Nothing: A Season In The Life Of The Champions League' and can be found on Twitter at @andybrassell.

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