James Lawton: Just one win can lift Spurs from gifted outsiders – and may save a whole season
Saturday 15 January 2011
Can there be any doubt about what most needs to happen this weekend to an essentially lousy, over-priced, under-achieving dog's dinner of a Premier League football season?
Surely it is Spurs beating Manchester United, which, among other bonuses, would bury the illusion that if United continue to play as they have been doing for most of the campaign and keep hold of their unbeaten record they might be even remotely placed in the same company as the invincible Arsenal of 2003-04.
All credit to obdurate United and their relentless commander Sir Alex Ferguson. One of the requirements of champions-elect is to reject the concept of defeat, even when you are playing as poorly as United were recently when they finished up beating West Bromwich Albion. This was a triumph of tough minds over some very loose matter.
United have been producing such victories – and draws – all season and a supreme example came at Old Trafford at the end of October when Spurs manager Harry Redknapp was incandescent with anger over the officiating of Mark Clattenburg but privately had to admit that his team had been a competitive notch down from their conquerors for most of the game.
It was an admission thrown into sharper perspective when a few days later his team thrashed the reigning champions of Europe, Internazionale, at White Hart Lane. Inter, we know now, were heading into a very bad place in the company of Rafa Benitez, but the Spurs triumph, however you looked at it, was the single most uplifting performance in a season shot through with mediocrity.
That night Tottenham played football which refuses to fade in the memory. It had adventure, vision, superior craft and some superb professional values and this remained true even in the face of Inter's strange indifference to the well-established threat of Gareth Bale.
Spurs owe it to themselves to produce something of the same tomorrow in a match which might well shape belief in their ability to make a serious challenge to United, Arsenal, Manchester City – and maybe a passably revived Chelsea. As it stands now, they are very much the gifted outsiders but also the team who can give some substance to the Premier League claims that what we have this season is not a terrible flattening of the highest levels of competition but new possibilities of surprise and intrigue.
Redknapp this week managed finally to put aside the bizarre distraction of David Beckham's latest publicity drive after declaring, "You cannot beat experience and David has it in bucket-loads. No matter how you are playing when you are going into the second half of a season and have Champions League football as well as Premier League, it's what you need."
If you insist, Harry, but you might have added that it is hardly required as much as players like Bale, Luka Modric and Rafael van der Vaart performing with the touch and the panache that embarrassed the team that got the better of Barcelona last season.
The bookmakers favour United, with the league leaders at 7-4 and Tottenham 15-8, but it is not exactly a resounding endorsement – and nor should it be.
Certainly it is hard not to believe that if Tottenham's key players find the best of their form – and confidence – they are capable of stretching United beyond the limits which have so often been so strained in pursuit of the unbeaten record.
The return of Nemanja Vidic for United is potentially of enormous significance, as is that of Wayne Rooney, but if we know what Ferguson will get from Vidic, the manager can hardly be so sure of Rooney. The most naturally gifted player born in these islands has still to make his statement of renewed authority and until it comes, accompanied by a roll of drums and maybe a clap of thunder, we have to presume the United enigma will continue.
It is one of a team who have created the foundation of a winning season but none of the coherence or conviction that normally accompanies such an achievement. Dimitar Berbatov, Nani, Anderson, the old guard of Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes and even Rooney have all had their moments but none of them have coloured the sky red above Old Trafford.
None of them, certainly, have had the impact of Bale or Van der Vaart or Modric in Tottenham's dissection of Inter. None of them have suggested the same capacity to catch fire.
It is important for Spurs and English football, and maybe even United that it should happen at White Hart Lane tomorrow. With more than half the season completed, the vital need is for a new level of excitement, a feeling that the competitive edge at the top of the league is not entirely about dwindling standards and tightening purse strings but the clatter of new forces.
City insists that this is what they represent, and that sooner or later their unique resources will produce a first title win in 43 years. Manager Roberto Mancini even talks, rather dizzyingly, of a five-man attack, an unbridled charge of the Light Blues. However, scepticism still seems the proper reaction.
Arsenal achieve brilliance, then lapse into futility. Chelsea fight against the impression that they have grown old and infirm in a rush and Carlo Ancelotti waits for some practical gesture indicating that their Russian owner Roman Abramovich continues to care one way or the other.
It leaves United finding unlikely ways to win or draw, and Spurs the one team who can truly be said to have had moments which have soared beyond expectations.
Tomorrow their challenge could not be more basic. Bale has to reclaim belief in the suspicion that at his best he is beyond restraint, that he is indeed the most exciting, free-spirited and inherently intelligent young footballer in the world. Van der Vaart has to show again the ability to read a game more shrewdly than anyone around him. Modric has to play with the creative joy that accompanies his best work – and punch at least twice his weight.
Given all that, Spurs can indeed bring a new and exhilarating snap to a laggardly season. It will not be a moment too soon.
Why I would cheer Nadal's Grand Slam louder than a Murray triumph
Patriotism is fine and splendid but there are times when it can be put on hold – at least in the playpen of sport.
This certainly is the conviction here as Andy Murray faces another year of haunting interrogation about his ability to win a major tournament. He is a fine, talented and intelligent player but if he is to achieve a Grand Slam breakthrough it should not happen in Melbourne over the next two weeks.
If there is any justice in tennis and life, the Australian Open is Rafa Nadal's by right of conquest – and competitive character.
If he should gather it there must be no dithering about the historical purity of his Grand Slam. He will not have pulled it off in one calendar year but will be only the third player in history, along with Don Budge and Rod Laver (twice), to hold all four titles at the same time.
It will be a stupendous achievement – and still another reason to believe that he is the greatest player of all time. That he is also arguably the most civilised and warm-hearted performer in all of sport is yet another reason to prepare the celebration.
Qatar debacle will leave a poor choice in presidential vote
The unraveling of the Qatar World Cup project, which has gathered such pace this week, is perhaps the strongest reason yet to believe that Fifa has overplayed its cynical hand – and that major reforms are as inevitable as the fall of Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
It is a pretty notion until you consider Blatter's most likely challenger in the May election. No, it is not some iconic football figure. For one thing, David Beckham has to finish his contract with Los Angeles Galaxy, and we cannot anticipate more substantial challenges from men of the calibre of Franz Beckenbauer or Johan Cruyff.
The most likely opponent is Mohammed Bin Hammam, who of course spear-headed Qatar's outrageous, mind-numbing coup to host the 2022 tournament. Bin Hammam, president of the Asian Football Confederation, is plainly a formidable political operator. But how would we greet the new president? It could only be as the man who pulled off the Qatar caper. What do you do, laugh or cry?
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