Going down? The terrible truth dawned on Tottenham yesterday that, eight games into the new season, they are already fighting a relegation battle against odds that history tells them usually prove insurmountable.
Defeat yesterday left Spurs with two points from their first eight games and only one club – Southampton in 1998-99 – have stayed up with a record as bad as that after the first eight games of the season.
Bottom of the league; for Juande Ramos, the situation is just about as bad as he could have imagined. With Gareth Bale (right) dismissed in the 17th minute and Danny Higginbotham successful from the resulting penalty, the plans the Spanish coach must have been plotting for the last two weeks were immediately in ruins. His Spurs team fought back after Darren Bent's equaliser but they could not maintain it and Rory Delap's second-half goal was decisive. To compound their problems, Spurs finished with nine men on the pitch after Michael Dawson's late red card.
What now for Ramos? He has overseen Spurs' worst ever start to a season and he is steering a very gilded ship perilously close to the rocks. So far the Spurs hierarchy have chosen to place the blame on Damien Comolli, the director of football, but the situation is now beyond crisis and approaching disaster. Yesterday's defeat may have hinged on an unfortunate red card but with Bolton (home) and Arsenal (away) coming up the club will wonder where the next win is coming from.
If Ramos had been compelled to admit where his concerns lay among yesterday's new-look Tottenham back four he might have said that it was with the return of Alan Hutton, playing for the first time this season as right-back. Or Vedran Corluka who, to accommodate Hutton, was moved to centre-half for the first time. Ramos would have had much less reason to fear for Bale (left) at left-back.
When your team is struggling, however, disaster seems to wait around every corner and it was Bale whose misjudgement plunged Spurs into trouble after just 17 minutes. He is one of the most accomplished young players in the Premier League and yet, with a moment's inattention, he allowed Tom Soares to get a yard on him outside the box and run into the area without a Spurs defender in sight.
Bale's attempt at a recovery tackle was not much better either, his left leg clipped Soares and, with the Stoke man just inside the area and no one else in sight, Bale did not wait around long to argue with the red card. It was a dramatic start that was made even more absorbing by the wind that whistles around the Britannia Stadium disturbing the ball after Higginbotham had set it on the penalty spot. Four times he had to check his run and walk forward to reset it before he scored.
An impressive show of nerve from the Stoke left-back; a complete catastrophe for Spurs. Without Bale, Ramos reorganised his team to move Didier Zokora back to left-back. But you suspect what the Tottenham coach was really wondering was whether his team had the resolve to save themselves – and their manager – in such wretched circumstances.
The signs did not look promising. Luka Modric's passing had been desperate and it seemed that Tottenham were the only people in the country not to know that Delap's long throw-in is Stoke's most potent weapon. Before Stoke's goal Heurelho Gomes had flapped at one throw-in and Soares had already missed one good chance to score before Bale's red card. In the circumstances, Spurs surprised everyone.
One goal and one man down, they looked desperate and, as a result, a whole lot more effective. Led by the excellent Jermaine Jenas whose zero minutes played for England over the last two weeks had given him all the rest he required, they fought back. "You're getting sacked in the morning," the Stoke support sang to Ramos. By the way he was frantically gesturing and trying to direct his team, Ramos seemed to think so, too.
It was a spot of luck that got Tottenham back into the game but they did enough to deserve it.
Hutton cut in from the right and hit a shot that ricocheted off Abdoulaye Faye and fell into the stride of Bent in the Stoke area. Bent was offside when he got the ball but there was no flag and the striker held off Andy Griffin to get his shot under Thomas Sorensen and into the Stoke goal. Within six minutes of falling behind, Spurs were level.
They were dominant for the rest of the half with Jenas increasingly influential. Even Modric came to life towards half-time, jinking away from Salif Diao in the right channel of Stoke's area and hitting a shot that was only fractionally wide. Aaron Lennon, out on the left to accommodate David Bentley, cut in and struck a shot that Sorensen had to throw himself down to stop. More problems for Tottenham however, with an injury to Gomes that appeared to have reduced the goalkeeper to tears before half-time and had the Spurs coaching staff warming up their replacement Cesar Sanchez during the break.
Stoke found their feet in the second half, stretching the 10 men of Spurs and they looked wide rather than direct down the middle. It made all the difference on 53 minutes. Soares found Mamady Sidibe on the right and the striker shaped a fabulous ball through the Spurs six-yard area. Jonathan Woodgate stuck out a toe to clear but thought better of it and arriving at the back post just in time was Delap to drive the ball into the net.
Behind once again, Spurs found it more difficult to muster themselves. Off came Bentley, dreadfully ineffectual again, with Roman Pavlyuchenko in his place as Ramos switched to 4-3-2. At the other end Hutton's trailing leg caught Sorensen who also seemed to be clipped around the head by Ibrahima Sonko as he went down.
Sorensen was replaced by Steve Simonsen. Back at the Spurs end, it got worse: Corluka was caught twice in succession by Gomes' knee – first his chest, then his head – and was carried off.
The delays for treatment to Sorensen and Corluka meant a whopping 11 minutes of added time. Stoke won another penalty when Woodgate tripped Soares and Ricardo Fuller, on as a substitute, struck both posts with his shot. Dawson was sent off for a terrible lunge at Sidibe. Fuller hit the bar. Dreadful for Spurs, but what a game.
Stoke City (4-4-2): Sorensen (Simonsen, 65); Griffin, Sonko (Shawcross, 83), Abdoulaye Faye, Higginbotham; Soares, Diao, Olofinjana, Delap; Sidibe, Kitson (Fuller, 55). Substitutes not used: Whelan, Cresswell, Amdy Faye, Tonge.
Tottenham Hotspur (4-5-1): Gomes; Hutton, Woodgate, Corluka (Dawson, 76), Bale; Bentley (Pavlyuchenko, 58), Zokora, Jenas, Modric, Lennon; Bent. Substitutes not used: Sanchez (gk), Huddlestone, Campbell, O'Hara, Assou-Ekotto.
Referee: L Mason (Lancashire).
Booked: Tottenham Hutton, Woodgate; Stoke City Abdoulaye Faye.
Sent off: Tottenham Bale (17), Dawson (90).
Man of the match: Soares.