"It was in those group games that one Dimitar Berbatov first began to announce himself as a player of genuine talent in a Tottenham shirt."
Spurs began the season looking to break into the top 4 and many observers were tipping them to do just that. A new big money striker had been signed in the shape of Dimitar Berbatov, with Mido also getting a permanent deal. Two new full backs, the highly prized Didier Zokora and the welcome return of European football at White Hart Lane gave Spurs fans hope of a memorable season.
It took fully 9 minutes for perennial bubble bursters Bolton Wanderers to bring Tottenham back to earth and a further 4 minutes for the more familiar furrowed brows to return to the foreheads of the Spurs faithful. A fairly comprehensive 2-0 defeat at the Reebok quickly reminded the fans that their side was still a work in progress. Moreover it illustrated just how pivotal Michael Carrick’s contribution had been the previous season.
Spurs opened their league campaign in dismal fashion, losing 4 of their first 6 Premiership games, beating only Sheffield United and contriving to lose at home to 10 man Everton. If the home performances were mediocre, Spurs’ away form was appalling. Their first away goal was scored by Villa’s Juan Pablo Angel and, penalties aside, they would wait until the week before Christmas before one of their own registered an away league goal in their first away league win at Eastlands. Hardly form to rattle the Big 4.
However that win away to City followed two solid home wins and lifted Spurs to 7th in the table by about the halfway point. 3 days later a dramatic late winner from Jermain Defoe saw off Championship strugglers Southend as Spurs progressed to the semi finals of the Carling Cup. A two legged affair a month later against Arsenal, with a smattering of more experienced players complementing their youngsters, started well before the disappointment of an extra time defeat at the Emirates.
By that time Tottenham had also advanced to the knock out stages of the UEFA Cup, winning every game they had so far played. It was in those group games that one Dimitar Berbatov first began to announce himself as a player of genuine talent in a Tottenham shirt. Goals in all of the group games against Besiktas, Bruges, his old club Leverkusen and Dinamo Bucharest told only part of the story.
Despite a lack of real pace, the fluency of his technique and the spatial awareness to bring in those players around him made him the perfect foil for the players already at Martin Jol’s disposal. A burgeoning relationship with Robbie Keane offered glimpses here and there of the potential in Spurs attacking play.
However, Spurs’ form over Christmas and New Year, in fact right up to the start of February gave cause for concern. For the first time in his reign Martin Jol faced serious questions about his ability to take Spurs forward. His tactical nous was derided in some quarters after his side won only 1 in 8 and slipped into the bottom half.
Often in this period Spurs appeared to have the upper hand in games that they subsequently went on to lose or draw. Newcastle were categorically outplayed at White Hart Lane, but left North London wearing sombreros, pocketing the points thanks to Obafemi Martins and some lacklustre finishing from the home side. Spurs grabbed a late draw away to Fulham after the home side lost Heidar Helguson for most of the second half.
Spurs though did have enough about them to overcome a faltering Cardiff side after a replay in the FA Cup before beating Southend to reach the fifth round and another trip to Craven Cottage. It was perhaps here that Spurs’ finally began to realise some of the potential they had going forward. Robbie Keane scored the first two with stunning volleys. Dimitar Berbatov came off the bench to also grab a brace, the second of which was both eloquently crafted and sublimely executed.
Five straight wins in the league followed including a wonderful 4-3 win at Upton Park, full of incident that was as good an advertisement for the English game as you are likely to see. Carlos Tevez scored his first West Ham goal; Noble made it two before half time as West Ham’s thoughts turned to salvation. However, Spurs came back to level before the Hammers grabbed what looked to be a winner through Tottenham old boy Bobby Zamora. In a dramatic late twist though Spurs levelled again before Paul Stalteri became an unlikely goalscoring hero, poking home the winner in front of Spurs’ delirious away contingent.
Following this there was a dizzying spell where Tottenham beat Portuguese side SC Braga 3-2 away in a stadium carved out of rock, drew 3-3 away with Champions Chelsea in the FA Cup, completed the job against Braga, again 3-2 before finally bowing out of the FA Cup in the replay at White Hart Lane.
The next league match brought a 90 yard strike from ‘keeper Paul Robinson, widely believed to be having a bad season, but in fact not getting anything like enough protection from an ever changing and often makeshift defence. Tottenham, for once, were the team to watch for thrills and spills at both ends.
The UEFA Cup quarter final brought the hardest possible draw. An early advantage in Seville was undone by an opaque interpretation of refereeing. In the return leg the game was up early on as the Spanish side took control and eased into a 2-0 lead. A stirring comeback fell short of the required 4 goals.
The detractors would obviously point to the fact that Spurs went out and to the naivety of the first half at White Hart Lane. Those of a “cup half full” persuasion might focus on the opponents Champions League and La Liga credentials whilst taking heart from the rousing second half.
Herein lies the problem for Spurs. A good season it was, undeniably. The league campaign ended with the final day victory over Manchester City securing 5th place, the highest position they held all season. However, it won’t be long before the progress made requires something tangible if Jol is to continue his Spurs project.
For the realists amongst the Spurs faithful, 2006/07 brought genuine joy at seeing Berbatov and Keane provide some fantastic moments. Michael Dawson grew in stature the longer the season went on, as did Didier Zokora. Other positives are the fact that a second 5th place in succession was achieved whilst Spurs made strides in all the cup competitions and played attacking, some might say gung-ho, football along the way.
For those Spurs fans usually highlighted by the press, the fickle few, no silverware will always mean failure. Whether that failure should bring about a change of management is a complete non starter really. Jol achieved enough in 2006/07 to be confident of taking his side on again in 2007/08.
With the players available, new signings reportedly on their way and a commitment to an attacking game, it should at least be interesting to watch. Although those Spurs fans of a nervous disposition might need to look away from time to time.