Football: Wimbledon in pole position

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Wimbledon 0
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IF YOU are going to Selhurst Park on 16 February take some sandwiches, check the time of the last train home and tell your partner not to wait up. You will not be back from the second leg of this Worthington Cup semi- final until Tottenham and Wimbledon have played out extra time and penalties.

The same applies to next week's FA Cup fourth-round replay between these teams at White Hart Lane. They are so closely matched, know each other so well, and are managed by such cunning coaches, it is hard to see anything but sudden-death spot-kicks separating them.

George Graham, the Spurs manager, admitted as much when he said: "One goal will settle it and could come from a mistake, a set-piece or a bit of luck. Or it could be penalties. It's a bit sad for the fans." Referring to the run of five matches in a month between the two clubs, he added: "We should have just played one match for 450 minutes, get it all over with as quick as possible."

Act III of the drama, more Beckett than Shakespeare, opened with much the same cast and an unchanged plot. Like the first two matches - one in the League; one in the FA Cup, both drawn - it was evenly contested with space at a premium and entertainment strictly limited.

The promise hinted at by a first-minute shot from Jason Euell failed to materialise as the game swiftly degenerated into a mish-mash of hopeful aerial balls and misplaced passes. This was by no means entirely due to Wimbledon. Tottenham, despite including two of the best passers in the country in David Ginola and Darren Anderton, were even more culpable. Their first effort on goal came from Stephen Carr, a 25-yard shot after Wimbledon had allowed him to run from deep. The second did not arrive until six minutes from half-time, when Sol Campbell shot over following a corner.

In between Wimbledon had been marginally in the ascendant. Euell provided a brief moment of anticipation as he skipped past Campbell but his cross was cleared by Ramon Vega. Neil Ardley put a powerful 25-yard shot into Ian Walker's arms and Efan Ekoku almost reached Robbie Earle's flick-on from Ben Thatcher's deep cross.

Such quarter-chances would normally go unrecorded but there was precious little else to note. With Wimbledon squeezing Anderton and Ginola out of the game on the flanks, and Spurs preventing Earle and Michael Hughes getting forward from midfield, both teams had achieved their first objective, of shutting down their opponents' options. The next step, breaking down the opposing defence, was proving more troublesome. Tottenham are more defensive in outlook these days, while Wimbledon's last line is one of the best in the country and last night the entire back four - total cost pounds 2.5m - was outstanding. "It was a first-class performance," Joe Kinnear, their manager, said.

Tottenham did play better in the second period and almost scored on 66 minutes when Anderton's free-kick skimmed the outside of the post from 20 yards. That came shortly after Ginola had departed with a mild hamstring strain following an abortive attempt at a tackle. He had escaped Kenny Cunningham's shackles just once only to be stopped in full flight inside the box by a brave and perfectly timed tackle from Earle. He left to a sharp exchange of words with a grinning Kinnear, who had asked: "How's the hammy?" Later Ginola said: "I normally recover quickly but it does not look good." He may miss the FA Cup replay, but recover in time for the Worthington second leg.

Kinnear's smile soon slipped as Wimbledon were pushed back but he need not have worried as his defence met the challenge, with Thatcher making an excellent tackle on Les Ferdinand. The substitute was also denied at the last when Neil Sullivan clutched his header from a corner.

There were few other shafts of excitement as the game slipped back into hoof and counter-hoof. One came after 80 minutes when Andy Sinton's cross was headed down by Ferdinand to Steffen Iversen in the box. The Norwegian had time and space but appeared, like an agoraphobic on Wimbledon Common, to become disorientated by the sensation and he failed to make any contact. It was that sort of night.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Walker; Carr, Vega, Campbell, Edinburgh; Anderton, Freund, Nielsen, Ginola (Sinton, 60); Iversen, Armstrong (Ferdinand, 61). Substitutes not used: Calderwood, Fox, Baardsen (gk).

Wimbledon (4-4-2): Sullivan; Cunningham, Perry, Blackwell, Thatcher; Ardley (C Hughes, 89), Earle, Roberts, M Hughes; Ekoku, Euell. Substitutes not used: Heald, Kimble, Leaburn, Kennedy.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Richard Williams, page 28 Di Canio redeemed, page 29