Hot Spur: Striker coveted by United can make the difference as Jol battles the big four
Come in the new No 9 - with goals that can take the hurt out of White Hart Lane
There's more than a hint of missionary zeal about Martin Jol as he strives to discover that long-lost élite European place that has eluded Tottenham Hotspur for 45 years. The Spurs manager and his team, it will be recalled, were sick to the stomach - literally in the case of several players - at events at the dénouement of last season, when those much-loathed folks next door nipped in while they were away, turned their house and their emotions over, and made off with fourth place, and the Premiership's final Champions' League position.
Rarely a haven for optimists in recent seasons, White Hart Lane has not been the stage for what used to be the European Cup since 1962, when Tottenham were defeated over two legs by Benfica in the semi-finals, despite goals from Bobby Smith and a Danny Blanchflower penalty.
There will be much talk about the club having "moved on" in the months since that wretched finale (the defeat at West Ham while Arsenal were beating Wigan) to an otherwise splendid season, which culminated in Spurs' demands for a replay of theUpton Park game because of perceived Machiavellian goings-on which were later disproved.
However, the desire to reverse those fortunes with the Gunners and claim the real money-spinning jackpot from the slot machine of European possibilities will be almost religious in its fervour. Best of the rest, and Uefa Cup action, is not sufficient for an ambitious board and, while Michael Carrick has been allowed to depart, one sensed a confidence that the breakthrough was in the offing when Jol paraded his three latest acquisitions.
Two hail from what would normally be regarded as fertile Arsène Wenger territory: left-back Benoît Assou-Ekotto has arrived from Lens, and midfielder Didier Zokora comes from St Etienne. The latter is regarded as a replacement for Carrick. But the most extravagant purchase, nearly £11 million of potent striker, is the Bulgarian international Dimitar Berbatov, who will don the No 9 shirt. Spurs may have been denied a Champions' League place, but they have signed a player who knows the competition well. He played for Bayer Leverkusen against Real Madrid in the 2002 final. Last season, his 21 goals in 34 matches for the German club in the Bundesliga was a record only bettered by the country's leading scorer, Miroslav Klose, of Werder Bremen and Germany, who accumulated 24.
Berbatov has been a striker in demand. He could have awaited the greater calling of a summons from Sir Alex Ferguson as a replacement for Ruud van Nistelrooy once the Dutchman's move to Real Madrid was finalised, but the Bulgarian is adamant that the most northerly of the London clubs are equally capable of challenging for the title. "Why not?" he says. "I know that Chelsea are the favourites, but I think from what I've seen we can go and challenge not only Chelsea but Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal - the four big clubs."
He was seduced by Spurs' overtures, he claims, "because they came and saw me when I'd only scored six goals in the German league [last season] and they said, 'We like you and want to buy you'." He explains: "Lever-kusen said no, but for six months Tottenham were always in contact with the club, saying, 'We still want you, whatever happens'. I scored 21 goals and then they came up with the price for me. They could buy whoever they wanted but they wanted me, and I appreciated that."
The 25-year-old, originally from Blagoevgrad in the south of Bulgaria, adds: "I spoke with Manchester United at the end of the season. They had a problem with Van Nistelrooy but I couldn't wait so long. Spurs had wanted me the whole time and sometimes that's the most important thing."
His signing is testimony to the forward thinking of the impressive Jol, who emerged in bizarre circumstances in the wake of Jacques Santini's abrupt departure in November 2004. For too long the club had indulged in a fantasy that they could co-exist with the teams of Ferguson, Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez. Now seemingly, they are on the cusp of sustaining themselves amid the hard-edged reality of life among those lumin-aries of the League, although there remains a caveat.
Last season, Spurs' tally was only four points from their fixtures against that quartet. To flourish, they must develop a greater ruthlessness in such games. To achieve that, Jol is dependent on a trio of Not The World Cup Strikers, in Berbatov, the Irishman Robbie Keane and the Sven Goran Eriksson- neglected Jermain Defoe, though under Steve McClaren it is likely he could soon regain international recognition.
Bulgaria's most expensive player, who has also won an award as that country's Most Stylish Man, says he was inspired by Marco van Basten. He has begun his Spurs career in a manner of which the Dutchman would approve, already on target with a couple of terrific goals in a friendly at Birmingham.
Berbatov believes he can combine effectively with either Defoe and Keane, or even both. "I hope so," he says. "We haven't lost a match so far in pre-season and I think we understand each other well. I hope that will continue in the first [Premiership] match against Bolton, but that's up to Martin Jol to decide how we play."
He adds: "I've played in all kinds of formations - one, two or three up front. For me it doesn't matter as long as I can score goals. I know that will be difficult in my first season against great teams and great players. The first two games of pre-season in France were difficult for me, but after a while you start to adapt to the style of football. I have come to a better League, I believe. But I'm not afraid. I respect all the guys and I will do my best to score as many goals as I can; 15 maybe?"
His prowess in front of goal will depend on the conduit of crosses from the Spurs midfielders, including Aaron Lennon, whose dashing footwork made David Beckham's future tenure of the England right flank look exceedingly vulnerable during the World Cup. "I haven't had the chance to play with him yet, but he's one of England's future stars," says Berbatov. "It will be great to have a player like that providing the crosses."
Berbatov was the Bulgarian player of the year in 2002, 2004 and 2005. In the absence of a Hristo Stoichkov, who incidentally is now the coach of the Bulgaria national side, the suspicion is that it may not take too much winning. However, there can be no doubting a talent which was first recognised through his performances for CSKA Sofia, for whom he made his debut at 18. He proceeded to score 26 goals in 49 games before joining Bayer Leverkusen in early 2001.
His tally of international goals, 31 in 50 matches, has ensured interest in a player whom Jol describes as "a very good mover, a target man and a goalscorer", from France and Spain and elsewhere in the Premiership.
Berbatov says that he learned English primarily by watching films. Presumably, as he prepares to test his predatory skills against the likes of John Terry and Rio Ferdinand, they would include, most appropriately, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Should he succeed, his manager can contemplate the transition of White Hurt Lane to one which is white hot with achievement.
JOL'S OTHER DEALS
DIDIER ZOKORA: The Ivory Coast midfield general was in demand and was snapped up for £8.6m before the World Cup. Now 25, he was brought from Belgian club Genk to St Etienne in France in 2004 by Damien Comolli, who is now Spurs' sporting director.
BENOIT ASSOU-EKOTTO: The Lens left-back, 22, was born in Arras but wants to represent Cameroon, despite turning them down once for personal reasons. He followed brother Mathieu to Lens aged 10.
DORIAN DERVITTE: The France Under-18 captain arrives from Lille. A tall, strong 18-year-old defender, he can play at centre-back or left-back and is skilful on the ball.
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