In their first European Cup match for almost 50 years, Tottenham last night risked losing riches undreamt of in those days, because of a calamitous defensive performance. It took a late goal by Roman Pavlyuchenko to offer real hope for the second leg of the play-off at White Hart Lane next Wednesday in which £20m or more is at stake just for reaching the Champions League group stage. Overall, however, it was thrilling entertainment in the best traditions of the glory, glory nights, even if the 1,800 visiting supporters would have preferred their defenders to have contributed less to the excitement.
Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, while giving due due credit to a Young Boys side who made the first half an hour look like child's play in scoring three times, said he thought familiarity with the artificial pitch gave them an unfair advantage. "I don't agree with Astroturf and don't think it should be used in a competition like this," he said. "I played on it myself and hated every minute. But I think a lot of it was in the mind."
Concerned by the players' reaction after training on the surface for the first time on Monday night, he left out Tom Huddlestone initially and Aaron Lennon, who both had slight niggles, as well as Ledley King and Peter Crouch. It seemed unnecessarily disruptive after an excellent performance at home to Manchester City on Saturday and none of the replacements – Winston Palacios and Giovani dos Santos were the others – impressed.
Pavlyuchenko proved an unlikely hero since he had been so ineffective for the previous 81 minutes, despite having been preferred to Crouch for his supposed familiarity with plastic surfaces from Moscow. Michael Dawson, England's newest centre-half, was as fallible as he had been in giving Hungary their goal at Wembley last week; and this time he was in no position to recover as Henri Bienvenu raced away from him to score. Even in the last few minutes, Tottenham might have conceded a crucial fourth goal when he was outpaced again down the right and the substitute Christian Schneuwly should have scored from the cross.
At 4-2, Spurs would have been relying on history for salvation. That was the score by which they lost their first European Cup tie to Gornik of Poland before storming through the second leg 8-1. White Hart Lane should not expect such a rout next week, although with the advantage of two away goals Redknapp's team should now join Chelsea and Arsenal as London's third representatives in the lucrative group stage.
Redknapp had optimistically insisted the pitch would suit Tottenham's passing game but there was little sign of that during a traumatic first half an hour. Only two minutes had elapsed when the excellent Bosnian midfielder Senad Lulic cut in from the left and struck Heurelho Gomes's right-hand post. One minute later, Benoit Assou-Ekotto was booked for holding back David Degen and almost immediately Spurs fell behind. Thierry Doubai's shot struck Ammar Jamal, possibly offside, and fell perfectly for Lulic to score with a low shot across the goalkeeper.
Giovani forced a save from Young Boys' goalkeeper-captain Marco Woelfli but within nine minutes there was a second goal. Dawson was caught flat-footed as Cameroon striker Bienvenu gave him two yards start before darting through the middle and finishing neatly. It grew worse. Tails up, the Swiss side cantered forward again and this time Sébastien Bassong was the spectator as Xavier Hochstrasser nipped past him onto Doubai's pass for another good finish. Redknapp reacted by sending on Huddlestone for Assou-Ekotto and moving Gareth Bale to left-back. It did not restrict the young Welshman's attacking possibilities, and from one of the corners he took, three minutes before half-time, Bassong redeemed himself with a towering header that Scott Sutter, the North Londoner playing at right-back for Young Boys, could only help in.
Spurs made a second change at the interval, Niko Kranjcar deputising for the injured Luka Modric, and they improved. Vedran Corluka and Huddlestone soon put over dangerous crosses and Bale, outstanding on Saturday, produced an even better one that Pavlyuchenko was not quite sharp enough to reach. The Russian also hesitated as Kranjcar supplied him close to goal and the chance was lost. He was then joined by Robbie Keane in the pairing that finished the Manchester City game, meaning both strikers are cup-tied and less likely to leave before the transfer deadline.
If the home fans in a standing section behind the goal maintained their level of support, their side's level of performance dropped off a little until Bienvenu climbed above two defenders to head a corner just too high. Another goal to either side in the last 20 minutes was going to alter the complexion of the tie dramatically in favour of whoever scored it. Young Boys were close with two shots over the bar from Chrstian Schneuwly, but with eight minutes left Pavlyuchenko scored high at the near post from Keane's pass. "It was a great defeat if there is such a thing," Redknapp concluded.
Young Boys 4-2-3-1: Wolfli; Sutter, Affolter, Jemal, Spycher; T Doubai, Hochstrasser; Degen, Costanzo (C Schneuwly, 65), Lulic; Bienvenu.
Substitutes not used Burki (gk), De Pierro, M Schneuwly, Raimondi, Regazzoni, Mayuka.
Tottenham Hotspur 4-4-2: Gomes; Corluka, Dawson, Bassong, Assou-Ekotto (Huddlestone, 36); Giovani, Palacios, Modric (Kranjcar, h-t), Bale; Pavlyuchenko, Defoe (Keane, 66).
Substitutes not used Cudicini (gk), Kaboul, Lennon, Crouch.
Man of the match Lulic.
Possession Young Boys 46%, Tottenham 54%.
Shots on target Young Boys 3, Tottenham 6.
Referee F De Bleeckere (Belg)
Match rating 8/10.