Match Report: Sergeant-major Tony Pulis marshals his Stoke City men to stop Tottenham Hotspur marching on
Tottenham Hotspur 0 Stoke City 0: Stoke stand firm and earn point but Villas-Boas' side still look well-placed for a top-four finish
white hart lane
Sunday 23 December 2012
No one does bah, humbug quite like Tony Pulis. He's the sort of manager who would question Bob Cratchit's work-rate were Dickens's careworn clerk reinvented as a midfield player who doesn't mind leaving his foot in. It was entirely unsurprising that seasonal spirit was severely rationed here.
Stoke did pander to our prejudices but profited with a point and extended their unbeaten run to eight games. The ghosts of seasons past haunted Tottenham, whose failure to secure their sixth win in seven games resulted in them falling behind Arsenal in the table on goal difference. It was a leftover turkey curry of a contest: stodgy, over-familiar and indigestible.
All managers blur the boundaries between perception and reality, and Pulis is in the Fergie class at setting a convenient agenda. When it suits, he has the menacing air of a regimental sergeant-major whose haemorrhoids have not cleared up as speedily as he had hoped. His gaze is steely and his tones are clipped.
Following yesterday's draw the Stoke manager was unapologetic. "Irrespective of what people say, or don't say, we do what we think is right," he stated. "The referee did a hard, hard job very well, in difficult circumstances."
Pulis had staged a classic pre-match diversion by criticising the Football Association for the supposed leniency of the punishment imposed on Everton's Marouane Fellaini for his headbutt on Ryan Shawcross last week. This subtle application of pressure on yesterday's referee, Lee Mason, was straight out of the Stoke playbook, but was inconclusive in its effectiveness.
Andre Villas-Boas, his opposite number, was frustrated by the disparity in Mason's response, suggesting he was more inclined to punish Spurs for what he described as "grabbing". In truth, however, Stoke did relatively little to embellish their reputation for turning set-pieces into grapple contests more suited to Giant Haystacks than the dainty Jermain Defoe. Shawcross, the Premier League's best exponent of dirty dancing in the box, was notably effective without being remotely offensive.
The main interest stemmed from the street theatre of the technical areas, where the benches did their best to summon superficial outrage. Pulis, true to character, advanced aggressively into the Spurs side when he felt Gareth Bale's susceptibility to gravity was becoming an issue.
Villas-Boas was particularly harsh towards Stuart Attwell, the fourth official, who took out his earpiece and covered his microphone before resuming his "discussion". So much for transparency in the post-Clattenburg era. League officials later confirmed the recording of conversations involving the match officials has yet to begin, without explaining the delay.
Stoke's fans, many dressed as penguins and snowmen, were more festive than their team, but Villas-Boas had picked the sort of side that don't mind concealing a horseshoe inside a velvet glove. Michael Dawson, recalled in central defence and reinstated as captain, was in his element.
Sandro was quickly booked for planting his boot on Glenn Whelan's hip, and the outstanding defender Jan Vertonghen was similarly punished for a late challenge on the Irishman. Stoke, however, were ready to respond in kind, with Steven N'Zoni's elbow catching Moussa Dembélé in the face. Whelan's vengeful shove on Vertonghen was, in the circumstance, rather mild.
If Pulis is depicted, somewhat unfairly, as a schoolyard bully waiting to relieve an innocent of his sweets, Villas-Boas is, equally unjustly, lampooned as a swot who always carries an apple for teacher.
But there is much to admire. Villas-Boas eschews excuses and deflects praise. He has worked quietly and diligently to fashion a team which, with strategic strengthening in the January transfer window, still look capable of being the best of the rest, behind the Manchester giants.
Tottenham are fifth, but their next four games, all against teams in the lower half of the table, offer an opportunity to establish a spot in the Champions' League places. Yesterday they paid the price for having insufficient options on the bench. A new striker is a priority.
Stoke missed the game's two best chances, through Kenwyne Jones and Ryan Shotton, before their ninth clean sheet of the season was secured by Asmir Begovic's brilliant one-handed save from a 91st-minute header by the Spurs substitute Gylfi Sigurdsson.
Ho, ho, ho, indeed.
Tottenham (4-4-2): Lloris; Walker, Dawson, Caulker, Vertonghen; Lennon (Sigurdsson, 78), Sandro, Dembélé (Parker, 85), Bale; Defoe, Adebayor.
Stoke (4-4-1-1): Begovic; Cameron, Shawcross, Huth, Wilkinson; Shotton (Whitehead, 64), Whelan, N'Zonzi, Etherington (Crouch, 69); Walters; Jones (Jerome, 66).
Referee: Lee Mason.
Man of the match: Vertonghen (Tottenham)
Match rating: 3/10
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