These are testing times for Andre Villas-Boas. After beginning the month with the euphoria of the victory over Arsenal that seemed to confirm the balance of power has finally shifted in north London, March is suddenly turning into a familiar tale of anxiety at White Hart Lane.
In the wake of two successive defeats on the road, this time it was two of Tottenham Hotspur’s former employees who inflicted their first home defeat in the league since November. Dimitar Berbatov’s scuffed effort six minutes into the second half was enough to seal a triumphant return for the Bulgarian and his Fulham manager Martin Jol, who raised his hands in the air at the final whistle to celebrate what must have been a hugely satisfying result for the man dumped by Spurs in October 2007.
After they seemed dead certs for next season’s Champions League, Tottenham’s spectacular collapse last season is now in danger of repeating itself. Villas-Boas may have replaced Harry Redknapp in the dugout but the familiar failings at home were all too evident in a poor display which hinted that the confidence built up over a 12-match unbeaten run has all but evaporated.
Since losing 4-2 to Arsenal at the Emirates in November, Tottenham have enjoyed a good record in London derbies, only dropping two points from a maximum of 15. Yet after the jittery display against Internazionale on Thursday night, the return of Gareth Bale to the team after his suspension must have been a relief for Villas-Boas.To accommodate for the absence of Aaron Lennon with a hamstring injury, the Spurs manager shuffled his pack considerably, moving Benoit Assou-Ekotto to the left-wing berth that used to be the Welshman’s favoured starting position before his successful move further forward. The versatile Jan Vertonghen was asked to fill in at left-back, while Emmanuel Adebayor was preferred to Jermain Defoe after his crucial goal at San Siro and Kyle Naughton was handed a rare opportunity in his preferred right-back role as Kyle Walker dropped to the bench.
Having stayed at home for the trip to Milan, Bale looked fresh and almost created himself an opportunity in the opening 60 seconds until a timely interception by Brede Hangeland. When a powerful header from Gylfi Sigurdsson’s corner was expertly cleared off the line by Sascha Riether in the sixth minute, Jol must have feared the worst. But after weathering the initial Bale storm, Fulham slowly found their feet, with the industry of Greece veteran Giorgios Karagounis and Steve Sidwell blunting Tottenham’s attacks at source through the middle. Draws against Arsenal and Chelsea on the road this season have hinted that Jol is finally finding an answer to Fulham’s traditionally poor form away from Craven Cottage, although Berbatov was often too isolated on his return to north London.
A Sigurdsson effort that sliced horribly wide of the target in the 23rd minute after good work from Bale and Scott Parker’s speculative effort that sailed over the bar were the closest Tottenham came to finding a way through a Fulham back line marshalled superbly by the dominant Hangeland. Bale’s shot from distance that flew into the second tier of the stands would have been more at home if he had been playing for Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday; it summed up a frustrating first period for the hosts.
Just before the break, White Hart Lane held its collective breath when Bale went down after slipping under pressure from Karagounis but he hobbled back on following treatment. Something had to change and Villas-Boas threw on former Fulham favourite Clint Dempsey at half-time for Michael Dawson, who was withdrawn after suffering a hamstring strain and will now be assessed ahead of England duty next week.
Five minutes into the second half, Bale tried his luck from distance to sting the gloves of Mark Schwarzer but rather than finally providing the spark for Tottenham, it was rapidly followed by Fulham taking the lead.
A quick break down the right by Ashkan Dejagah put Riether in space and the German delivered an inch-perfect ball into the path of Berbatov. The Bulgarian seemed to scuff his effort but Hugo Lloris dived early and the ball found its way into the corner of the net, to the surprised delight of the visiting supporters.
Stunned into action, Villas-Boas turned to Defoe and the England striker should have done better in the 69th minute when he drilled Caulker’s ball into the box straight at Schwarzer. Tom Carroll then replaced the ineffective Mousa Dembélé and Adebayor missed the target with a header.
As the clock ticked down, Bale was often forced to retreat as deep as the halfway line to pick up the ball from his defenders but he struggled to create an opportunity.
Dejagah should have settled matters four minutes from time when he opted to head Berbatov’s cross back across a gaping goal.
In the final minute a cross from the outside of Bale’s right boot picked out Defoe, five yards out and apparently offside, but Schwarzer pulled off an outstanding save.
As Jol celebrated, a smattering of boos from the home fans greeted the final whistle but Villas-Boas will know that any more performances like this will mean Thursday night football is the likely outcome once again next season.