Spurs maintain title challenge but injuries mount
Tottenham Hotspur 1 West Bromwich Albion 0: There is more to title credentials than thrilling football. Beautiful, fluid, confident play has certainly helped to carry Tottenham Hotspur to third place in the Premier League but it will not take them all the way.
Patience, application, and beating stubborn opposition – skills which evaded some of Spurs' rivals over the Christmas period – are required, too. Tottenham displayed all of those necessary virtues last night in seeing off a disciplined West Bromwich Albion.
The victory strengthens Spurs' hold on third place, and leaves them the only side in the top six to have emerged unbeaten from their Christmas matches. For over an hour they were frustrated by Albion's defensive tactics; the same perfectly marshalled lines which kept out Manchester City on Boxing Day. But, after 63 minutes, Jermain Defoe spun in the box and stabbed the ball into the bottom corner.
Harry Redknapp was understandably delighted with the victory. "You're not going to rip teams apart every week," the Spurs manager said. "It's not easy. You only need to look at the results over the holiday period. There are no easy games. Blackburn proved that at Old Trafford, Sunderland proved that beating Man City, Fulham beating Arsenal."
The victory was even more impressive for having been in doubt. "They were set up to be difficult to beat, it was hard work breaking them down," said Redknapp, who was not confident before the goal came. "I couldn't see anything at half time. They were sitting in deep, there was no space. We like to hit teams on the counter-attack but if they're not coming out it's very difficult."
Both teams now have three days rest before their FA Cup third-round ties, although they will go into those games short on bodies. Spurs had to make three substitutions for injuries. "Sandro tore a calf, so that'll be a long one," Redknapp explained afterwards, while William Gallas will also have a scan on his calf. Jake Livermore went off with a split lip.
Roy Hodgson lost Jerome Thomas to a groin strain, and he said the winger was a "victim" of the busy Christmas period. Albion had problems enough beforehand: they were without regulars Chris Brunt, Youssuf Mulumbu, Jonas Olsson, Steven Reid and Shane Long. George Thorne, who turns 19 today, made his first Premier League start in midfield.
The success of Hodgson's teams, though, is based more on structure than individuals. He has a drill sergeant's knack of arranging his troops with discipline and rigour. Albion defended in the first half with the same organisation, symmetry and proximity to one another that has been successful this season.
Tottenham, who brought Defoe in for the injured Scott Parker, dominated possession, but it was largely possession on Hodgson's terms: rarely finding space behind the visitors' defence, or shooting positions in front. Spurs' best chance of the first half came when Rafael van der Vaart darted to the near post to meet Gareth Bale's low cross; Ben Foster tipped the shot over the bar.
It was Bale, as usual, who made the difference. He induced two yellow cards in the first five minutes from Billy Jones and Graham Dorrans, and the visitors were soon disinclined to get quite so tight.
After 18 minutes of an increasingly confident second half, the Welsh winger set up Spurs' goal. Benoit Assou-Ekotto, passed to Van der Vaart, who found Bale in space. Bale slid the ball across to Defoe who, with his back to goal, spun the centre-back Jones and scored. It was only the second time Redknapp had started Defoe, Adebayor and van der Vaart together this season, and the range of attacking options eventually delivered.
Man of the match Kaboul.
Match rating 4/10.
Referee M Halsey (Lancashire).