Football: Tottenham Hotspur 1 Aston Villa 0 - Spurs escape from French fixation

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The Independent Online
SPURS ENTER the most important week of their season buoyed by only their second Premiership victory this year, although their performance was unlikely to have Barnsley, their FA Cup quarter-final hosts tomorrow, or Leicester, with whom they contest the Worthington Cup on Sunday, quaking in their boots.

Tim Sherwood's goal, as the contest reached its penultimate minute, was enough to deny Villa what would have been their second point in seven matches. If the crowd appeared as surprised as they were delighted, it was probably because Spurs had scored when David Ginola was no longer on the pitch.

George Graham's team are in danger of becoming fixated with the Frenchman. Against Villa, virtually their only attacking ploy was to work the ball wide to Ginola on whichever flank he was lurking and hope that one of the front two, or perhaps Sol Campbell, might connect with a cross.

As one-dimensional tactics go, it is a pretty good one. Ginola's ability to deliver with either foot, and from the most hemmed-in of positions, puts even David Beckham in the shade. The problem is that if he can be subdued - admittedly a big "if" on his present form - there is little evidence of any Plan B.

Few clubs appreciate the rewards that rigorous man-marking can bring better than Spurs' Wembley opponents. Leicester's success in the same competition two years ago owed much to Pontus Kaamark's limpet-like attention to Juninho, one of the few players whose destructive capacity compares with Ginola's.

Frustratingly for Graham, Sherwood is ineligible for the final. The midfielder's well-timed runs into the penalty area lend variety to Spurs' attacks, all the more vital when Darren Anderton is as indolent as he was on Saturday. It was the Martin Peters act of the former Blackburn captain act which finished off Villa, albeit a trifle fortuitously.

When Steffen Iversen shot, Mark Bosnich failed to hold the ball for the only time. Sherwood headed the rebound against a post, but had the ball returned to him by Alan Wright's miscued clearance and seemed to use a hand in bundling it in. Like the referee's failure to punish Ian Walker for what appeared a cynical foul as Alan Thompson rounded him in the opening minutes, it summed up Villa's current luck.

"A scrappy goal," sighed John Gregory, ruing a win by the club he grew up supporting. "I wish we could get one." Not that he has lapsed into self-pity, being as open and honest as when Villa sweeping all before them. He blamed himself for failing to strengthen further one of the division's smaller squads, but refreshingly declined to use the lack of depth as an excuse.

Gregory also spoke candidly about his team's lack of confidence, the quality which sustained Villa at the summit until Christmas. One cameo in the first half, after Mark Draper's clever back-heeled pass gave Lee Hendrie a glimpse of goal, demonstrated the problem vividly.

Instead of shooting, the normally precocious Hendrie laid a safe ball back to Stan Collymore, who did exactly the same. The moment was lost and Villa did not create a scoring chance. Worryingly, it was a similar story in the midweek defeat at Derby.

Steve Stone could be forgiven for feeling confused. After forsaking a supposedly lost cause at Nottingham, he found himself in a team showing relegation form. Sent off for fouling Ginola when they last met, the pounds 5.5m recruit was now delegated to check the winger's surges. The task brought a predictable caution and allowed little scope for any positive contribution.

Gregory's side may now struggle to secure the European place that once looked theirs for the taking. It was Graham who, after Villa drew at Leeds during their club-record breaking start, said they were top-six possibles but not championship material. The words now read more like sound judgement than sour grapes.

Having been eliminated from all three knock-out competitions by mid-January, Villa have made a sorry advert for the time-honoured concept of concentrating on the League. Concentrating on the cups may not be Graham's style in the longer term, any more his over-reliance on Ginola's maverick talents. But until next Sunday at least, Spurs' season is alive, whereas Villa's is in danger of dying on its feet.

Goal: Sherwood (89) 1-0.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Vega, Campbell, Taricco (Sinton, 80); Nielsen, Anderton, Sherwood, Ginola (Dominguez, 80); Armstrong (Iversen, 80), Ferdinand. Substitutes not used: Young, Baardsen (gk).

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Scimeca, Southgate, Barry; Stone, Draper, Hendrie, Thompson, Wright; Collymore, Merson (Joachim, 67). Substitutes not used: Byfield, Delaney, Samuel, Oakes (gk).

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough).

Bookings: Tottenham: Ferdinand. Villa: Barry, Draper, Stone, Hendrie.

Man of the match: Ginola.

Attendance: 35,963.