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Thursday, 11 November 2010

Tottenham reach end of ‘that’ ten year cycle…


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Bournemouth F.C. escaped dropping out of the football league in 1993, the man responsible for this was Harry Redknapp. This same squad also shocked Manchester Utd in the FA cup that season by converting the holders into also-rans. 

Tottenham were considered more a cup team before Redknapp took charge, but he instilled consistency into them last year and transformed them into genuine top four candidates. Fighting on two demanding fronts this season may take its toll though, maybe this year will see them return to that aforementioned cup-side tag.

Europe’s premier club competition is embedded into Tottenham’s fixture list this season, following last season’s 38 game scuffle with Manchester City for that much-coveted fourth place.

Redknapp must have only dreamt about dizzying days such as these whilst flitting between south-coast rivals, Portsmouth and Southampton during the mid-noughties. 

His time at White Hart Lane comes under the romance genre. His first task in 2008 was pulling them out of the rubble left by Juande Ramos, following the latter’s quite shambolic tenure. Redknapp led them to a respectable eighth place that season which was more than most expected, his assembly have since gone from strength to strength.

Upon reflection of the mauling served up for last seasons all-conquering Internazionale – a treble achievement which spanned European and domestic landscapes, albeit under a different manager - Spurs, must now re-assess both their season’s ambitions and priorities.

Spurs will face a battle to re-gain qualification this season. The top four will be constructed out of probably six teams, so questions will be asked about genuine squad depth. For example, if Redknapp rests Aaron Lennon then he turns to David Bentley, and put simply, an average Blackburn side made Bentley look good.

Spurs’ domestic form is drastically suffering this season, trying to juggle a congested and intensified fixture list seems to be a task Redknapp does not enjoy. The defeat at Bolton, that followed the ruffling of the Italian champions, signifies a bittersweet obstacle this season - the players seem more fired up for European assignments.

Wouldn’t it be ironic though if Tottenham could go onto Champions League glory this year, after putting one over on the last manager to do it in such unexpected fashion - Rafa Benitez. 

There are similarities. In 2005 Liverpool qualified through the back door after finishing fourth in the Premier League and entered the Champions League under no pretences.

Following epic battles against the likes of Juventus and Chelsea, Liverpool went on to break Milanese hearts in 2005. Redknapp take note, the best team in Europe does not always win the Champions League.

Spurs’ squad is arguably stronger than the one Benitez honed to champion status. The Spaniard won the competition also at the expense of their domestic campaign as Liverpool finished fifth that year, consequently having to bully their way back in as holders.

The European road Spurs have set out on this season, could, at a stretch, prove to be another enchanting journey for English football. If football was a science then beating the current holders so emphatically should mean they would fear no one, Redknapp should, and probably will, rally his troops working from that premise.

Many will say, and rightly so that he does not possess the nautical nous to make massive in-roads into the Champions League, but leaving the San Siro suffering such a ‘good defeat’, with a man down, your side must be pointing in the right direction.

This is where a dream turns into a complete fantasy for Redknapp. Many people, Tottenham supporters included, will laugh at the notion that follows but the old adage tells us football is a funny old game. Also, what is football if not a great platform for a debate, could Spurs really win the biggest club competition?

Redknapp’s man-management skills certainly eclipse the depth of his tactical know-how – Benitez was the polar opposite, former players even criticised the latter’s’ man-management skills.

Benitez won the Champions League with an over-cautious approach and a selection policy that was often as unfathomable as his recent ‘priest on mountains of sugar’ tirade. Saying that, playing on the side of caution won him big, big games.  

Against Young Boy’s in August - the game determining qualification to the Champions League proper for Spurs - Redknapp’s tactics were poor and he under-rated their Swiss opponents. 

From being three-down though they pulled two back for another good away defeat - setting themselves for the return leg at the Lane, ultimately qualifying courtesy of a Peter Crouch hat trick. But it was tactical naivety that made their route more gruelling than formality.

Away from home in European competition it is not always necessary to play with the shackles off, a style that is Redknapp’s lifeblood. Looking at the way he originally lined up at the San Siro though, 4-4-1-1, a lesson had been learned – until obviously, Heurelio Gomes’ dismissal forced his hand. 

If they are to make serious progress then Redknapp must learn to balance his instinct of free-flowing football with an approach to nullify opposition. 

But any team who can score six goals in two games against an Internazionale side, guided by a manager whose reputation was built on tactical intricacies, is impressive. Spurs have re-injected some excitement back into the group stage of the Champions League, which had become such a formality for our original big four in recent years.

Going further, and in Redknapp’s defence, you need more than two hands to count the number of centre-back pairings he has been forced into employing this season, continuity is missing in a vital area.  

Tighten things up at the back, reign in a gung-ho attitude that is sometimes misplaced, with it showing more patience away from home and as mad as it may sound, the Champions League could be on the verge of producing another magical story.

Some say Spurs have peaked and will not produce a performance - labelled as the best in their recent times - again this season, but Redknapp has built his Spurs side to play expansive football and his approach scores goals.

A discussion of Spurs’ debut in the Champions League would be incomplete without mentioning their two superstars. Redknapp has nurtured and poached Gareth Bale and Rafael Van Der Vaart respectively - both are priceless match-winners and must be used sparingly.

Bale’s’ assist tally in the Premier League is actually pretty poor considering he is the greatest player the world has ever, ever, ever seen. In Europe however, his input has been greater – a hat trick coupled with pinpoint crossing shredded the Italian Champions to bits. Maybe English teams have worked out how to play against the humble Welshman.  

Spurs have had two memorable European nights already, the double-header against Internazionale produced 11 goals and they haven’t played in the knockout stages yet. The competition really comes to life in the New Year, two-legged games that raise the bar in tempo, excitement and unpredictability.  

It may all sound a bit far fetched, but wind the clock back five years and the same deafening negativity could have been heard regarding Benitez’ European campaign. People wouldn’t dare to have uttered Liverpool and European champions in the same breath.

Spurs will hope to avoid English opponents in the knockout draw as their 17-year exile from an away win against a big-four side, may prove problematic. Fate will have to play its part too as it did for both Manchester United and Liverpool in their respective dates with destiny. 

With London hosting the final, a London manager winning the Champions League, with a London club, (for the first time), may be a start. Oh, and ask any Tottenham fan what happens when the year ends in a one.

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Paul O'Meara

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