Football: Honeymoon is over as Gross prepares for a scrap

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The Independent Online
It takes a dismal set of results to turn Gerry Francis' time at Tottenham into their halcyon spell this season, but the team have managed it in the last two weeks. Guy Hodgson looks at the importance of Spurs' game against Barnsley today and other leading fixtures, while Nick Harris (below) analyses the programme match by match.

It was not the three lions on their shirts that helped persuade Christian Gross to come to Tottenham Hotspur, but just the two of them. They stand either side of the crowing cockerel on the club crest, an apt metaphor for their predicament as the critics circle the team, their teeth bared.

Ten goals conceded in two games are bad enough but the supine surrender in the matches against Chelsea and Coventry has been more alarming. Gross likes the badge, the fans wonder whether the players are fit to wear it and with his feet barely under his White Hart Lane desk the manager is being accused of being out of touch with Premiership football. Just four weeks after being appointed it must be the shortest honeymoon period in history.

Which makes today's opponents, Barnsley, twin-edged guests. On one hand you could hardly hope for a better match than against the bottom club, but what if you lose and are overtaken by a team who are commonly regarded as the stragglers in the Premiership. The thought is almost too grisly to contemplate. Ask Liverpool.

"The situation is critical," Gross said, "and we must beat Barnsley. We give away too many goals and, of course, the coach is the first one to be blamed in times like this.

"Twenty-six of the 32 goals we have conceded this season have come in the second half so we have been working in training on fitness and concentration. I know the match will be tense but every game is going to be like that."

While Tottenham suffer, their consolation is that they are not alone among so-called big clubs. Gross might have secured only three points so far, but it is one point more than Howard Kendall's Everton have managed over the same period. Bill Shankly's joke that there are two good teams on Merseyside, Liverpool and Liverpool's reserves, is becoming more pertinent almost daily.

The Everton chairman, Peter Johnson, jetted off to the Caribbean for a two-week break on Thursday and by the time he returns the grave situation now might seem positively rosy in comparison. Leicester City away today and Manchester United at Old Trafford on Boxing Day are not fixtures made for teams in the relegation places.

A goal would help but they have not scored for four matches and Duncan Ferguson is suspended and Michael Branch injured. "We are working hard to do something in the transfer market," Kendall said, "but nothing has come from the calls we've made." As Mitch Ward and Carl Tiler was the answer last time, maybe that is as well.

Blackburn Rovers, second in the table and seemingly over their Old Trafford rout, should be too strong for West Ham, John Hartson notwithstanding, while Chelsea need a good result to make up for that brutal 0-0 draw against Leeds. As Sheffield Wednesday hope to keep 11 players on the field and are transformed by a 12th, Ron Atkinson, that task is not as easy as it might seem.

Leeds United, roundly condemned for their alehouse tactics at Stamford Bridge, could have wished for more benign opponents at Elland Road, too. Bolton Wanderers - "We're not a dirty side," (Colin Todd) - have had five players sent off this season which surpasses even George Graham's side.

Coventry City will give a debut at Liverpool to George Boateng, the Dutch midfielder who Gordon Strachan describes as "a steal" at pounds 250,000, an appropriate word as the Sky Blues have been pilfering points at Anfield recently and are unbeaten in their last three matches there.

Derby (seventh) would expect to beat Crystal Palace (15th) at Pride Park if it were not for the Londoners extraordinary success on their travels. Their five wins surpasses even Manchester United, yet they cannot win at Selhurst Park.

Alex Ferguson's team are at St James' Park tomorrow, where a sinking feeling has been gripping Newcastle United supporters. Not the cold realisation that the team might go down, but the emptiness of knowing that early-season optimism might come to nothing. It is five games now since they last won in the Premiership.

Meeting Manchester United has all the attraction of a red-coloured bill dropping through the letter-box and there is also the little matter of revenge burning at Old Trafford. Last year the champions were walloped 5-0 at Newcastle and on Tyneside the fear is it could be pay-back time.

The Newcastle team were booed off the field after Wednesday's 0-0 draw against Derby County and it will not improve the humour of the Toon Army to see their former idol, Andy Cole, playing for the visitors. "It brings an edge to strikers when they return to their old club," Ferguson said. "I always felt that myself and I scored against all my former clubs."

His dilemma is who to leave out now that Paul Scholes is back from suspension. It is a problem that Gross, the Christian amid the lions, would not recognise.

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