Andre Villas-Boas, who knows his team can secure a place in the knockout stages with a win in the Stadio Olimpico, could receive a boost with the return of a key player for tonight’s Europa League tie against Lazio.
When Mousa Dembele’s hip injury forced him to step away from the team, Tottenham’s form went with him. With the Belgian in their starting XI, Spurs won four and drew two of six matches, including a memorable 3-2 victory over Manchester United at Old Trafford.
Since Dembele sustained the damage while on duty with Belgium, Spurs have lost four of their five Premier League fixtures and been knocked out of the Carling Cup, while the only wins in that period have come against Southampton and Maribor — hardly crack opposition.
Dembele is involved with the senior squad again for the first time since October 7, when he helped Spurs beat Aston Villa 2-0. Even if he is restricted to a limited contribution tonight, he should be pushing strongly to start the forthcoming League matches, against West Ham on Sunday and Liverpool next Wednesday.
When a side are struggling, the reputation of the injured men starts to soar and this has been the case with Dembele. It is also true, however, that the £15million signing from Fulham had made a seriously impressive start to his Tottenham career.
Dembele appears to have the same effect on this team that Luka Modric had, although he’s a different type of player. The 25-year-old possesses both subtlety and speed and Spurs have missed his ability to pass perceptively and glide past opponents.
With Tom Huddlestone and Sandro patrolling the centre of midfield, Spurs have become too predictable in attack, with the main danger stemming from Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon on the flanks. When Dembele plays, Spurs’ threat increases substantially.
As has been the case for Spurs’ previous away games in the Europa League, Brad Friedel has not travelled to Rome. Hugo Lloris and Carlo Cudicini are the keepers in Italy for the tie and Friedel, who lost his place to Lloris for last Saturday’s north London derby, is wanted by his former club, Blackburn.
Rovers are keen to bring Friedel back to Ewood Park but the transfer might be complicated by the presence of Paul Robinson. The former Spurs goalkeeper is not thought to figure in the plans of new Blackburn manager Henning Berg but the Championship club are keen to move Robinson on before they attempt to sign Friedel. The deal would include an initial loan spell, to be made permanent when
the transfer window re-opens in January.
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy is considering his options. Friedel has been impressive this season and even if he cannot force his way past Lloris, he provides top-class back-up for the Frenchman.
Regardless of the immediate future for Friedel, he is convinced that Dembele’s return will ensure Spurs’ form improves.
“It will be great when he is back,” said the American. “What a tremendous talent he is. Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart have left the club and he is the replacement.
“He is an outstanding player and he will bring a surge in flair when he is available.”
Victory tonight — in front of former Spurs and Lazio favourite Paul Gascoigne, who will be at the Stadio Olimpico — would secure Tottenham’s place in the last 16 of the competition.