Match Report: Gareth Bale returns to haunt Southampton as Tottenham Hotspur build head of steam
Southampton 1 Tottenham Hotspur 2
The sleepless nights are clearly not affecting Gareth Bale yet, the new father celebrating his return from paternity leave today with a goal that helped lift Tottenham into the Champions League places for the first time this season. With Clint Dempsey doubling the lead, Spurs were able to withstand a second-half Southampton rally given impetus by Jay Rodriquez's third goal for the club since his £7m arrival.
Bale was given last week off after his partner gave birth to a girl but was delighted to return in time to make his first appearance at Southampton since leaving the club in 2007. Saints were less pleased to see him after his 11th-minute goal sent them towards their seventh defeat in nine games.
Nigel Adkins insisted he is "confident" he will get time from the board to turn his team's form around, but there are signs that the tough start to the campaign has taken its toll on his players. The worrying aspect of the first half for Southampton fans was not the gulf in quality, that was inevitable, but Tottenham's greater intensity despite their midweek exertions in the Europa League.
Against the Manchester clubs at the start of the season Saints had taken the game to their exalted opponents. Then, however, they were still buoyed by back-to-back promotions. That confidence has drained away as the goals have rattled in against them and they played the first 45 minutes as if the prime aim was to keep the score down. Spurs were allowed to pass the ball at will as the home team sat off. Tom Huddlestone barely faced a tackle in that period and dictated play without breaking into a sweat.
Sandro had been denied by Artur Boruc, and Jermain Defoe spurned a fine opportunity created by Kyle Walker, when Huddlestone was given time and space to pick a pass 30 yards out. He floated in a deep cross and Bale surged past Nathaniel Clyne to head back across goal inside the far post. The former Southampton academy boy's celebration was low-key. "I've waited five-and-a-half years to come back and it was a bit emotional scoring, but the main thing was to come here and do a job," said Bale. "I had been here since I was nine years old and my celebrations were muted out of respect."
Six minutes from the break Dempsey scored the goal which appeared both to kill the game and sum it up. Aaron Lennon drove unchallenged from midfield before finding Defoe with a clever reverse pass. Defoe chipped over Boruc but Jose Fonte looked about to hack the ball away only to lose his footing, he scuffed his clearance and Dempsey prodded the ball in.
At half-time Adkins changed Saints' shape, playing Adam Lallana behind Rickie Lambert in a 4-2-3-1 formation. He also told his players to up the tempo and reiterated his pre-match command that they "get up and get at them." This time his players took heed.
Saints' positive intent was soon evident with Brad Friedel brought into action for the first time to save a Jason Puncheon volley. They continued to press and were rewarded midway through the half. Fox took a corner conceded to prevent Maya Yoshida scoring, his delivery was met by Fonte and, though Friedel parried his flick, Rodriguez lashed in the rebound.
There was a time when Tottenham would have crumbled but, while it was tense enough for Villas-Boas to resume his famous crouch in the final minutes, his players' attitude was epitomised by Sandro who was knocked the ground by the force of a Morgan Schneiderlin shot he blocked. Lambert also had a goalbound effort blocked and Rodriguez shot wide. The importance of the victory to Villas-Boas was evident as he sent his players over to the away support, where they threw their shirts into the crowd. "I told them I will pay them for the shirts," said the manager who dedicated the victory to Alex Carroll, one of the club's administrative staff who lost his mother to cancer this week.
For Southampton there were further problems as it emerged that Boruc had marked his home debut with an altercation with his own supporters.
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