Middlesbrough 2 Tottenham 1: Wheater exposes Spurs' striking deficiencies
Sunday 17 August 2008
Juande Ramos must have known what to expect after watching a horribly toothless Tottenham Hotspur succumb to their latest opening-day defeat.
The Spaniard was not to be disappointed. He spent most of his post-match press conference fending off questions as to the future of Dimitar Berbatov, the unsettled forward he opted to confine to a cameo role from the bench, as his charges were all too easily brushed aside by an energetic Middlesbrough who, albeit on the evidence of a single afternoon, showed rich promise for the coming campaign.
"For the moment, Berbatov is a Spurs player," insisted Ramos, having made hay for the gossip-mongers by leaving the player out of the fray until the final 25 minutes after which the visitors looked much more of a threat with the Bulgarian pushed up to support Darren Bent, who up until that point had been hopelessly ineffective.
Explaining his very public Berbatov snub, Ramos added: "We opted for Giovani dos Santos because I thought his speed would trouble Middlesbrough as they tired later into the game."
Already without the departed Robbie Keane, the omission of Berbatov meant Tottenham were shorn of two players who between them contributed 46 goals last season. It is a goal-scoring deficit which will take some filling. "We've got to see if we can add in one or two areas and put this result behind us," Ramos added, optimistically.
Talk of a move to Manchester United or Barcelona refuses to go away for the hugely talented but brittle-of-temperament Berbatov, but Ramos added: "I'm happy with him, he's part of the squad and I have nothing to say about him really. There's been no transfer request from him and I love great players."
David Wheater is never in danger of being described as a great player, but what the amiable youngster lacks in natural talent, he more than makes up for in so many other ways, not least his goal-scoring exploits.
Pressed into service as an emergency right back – Middlesbrough paraded Justin Hoyte before the game but the £3m full-back was not signed in time to play – the locally born and bred centre-back had already had one seemingly good effort ruled out for pushing in the first half before he broke the deadlock with 19 minutes remaining, sweeping home the rebound from close range after Afonso Alves had diverted Stewart Downing's low cross against the bar. In the past, Middlesbrough have been guilty of trying to hold on to rather than attempting to exploit slender leads, with a regular consequence of leaving themselves open to late equalisers, but not on this occasion.
Mido, the former Tottenham forward, ensured a miserable return south for his former employers with the killer second four minutes from time, the Egyptian international expertly deflecting in a cross-shot from fellow substitute Didier Digard shortly after his introduction.
Robert Huth, the German defender, glanced in David Bentley's injury-time free-kick to deny Middlesbrough a deserved clean sheet, but for Tottenham it was scant consolation and far too late for thoughts of a stirring comeback. Beaten at Sunderland on the opening day 12 months ago, Spurs' summer of big spending, fresh hope and ambitious words soon gave way to football's version of groundhog day.
"There was a belief around the stadium," Gareth Southgate, the Middlesbrough manager, said. "When there's a feeling like that among the fans you want to reward that faith."
For Tottenham supporters, keeping the faith just became that little bit harder.
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