Inevitably with Glenn Hoddle in charge, Spurs this term are going to be at once looking back and looking forward. But yesterday at White Hart Lane looking for anything positive was a problem.
If Villa came to prove that they can contain a side most people believe will eventually become much more imaginative than in recent years they could claim a success. If that is what passes for entertainment the game itself is falling far short of its intrusive pre-season hype.
Expectancy levels at both clubs this season are focused no lower than qualification for Europe, though, realistically some way short of the Champions' League. For John Gregory anything less than an improvement on last season's mid-table position would almost certainly bring about his downfall, but Hoddle should have the luxury of some leeway while he continues to enjoy the Spurs fans' support. But how long will that last if he fails to produce that most elusive fusion: attractive and successful football?
In spite of Hoddle's canny summer signings, the loss of Sol Campbell provokes doubts about the defence. And then there is always the "Tottenham problem": injuries. Yesterday they began without Teddy Sheringham, Steve Carr, Tim Sherwood and Oyvind Leonhardsen. And, within 15 minutes, Les Ferdinand had collapsed under a 50-50 challenge from Alan Wright and was quickly replaced by Steffen Iversen.
If Spurs are to succeed with Hoddle's plans for quick, accurate passing they will depend on new boy Gus Poyet as much as Villa look to Paul Merson for their inspiration. Yesterday the Uruguayan provided the scarce touches of originality and soon had Villa's surprising summer signing, Peter Schmeichel, familiarly screaming abuse at his own defence. Yet most of Poyet's prompting dried up in the Villa penalty area, leaving only one obvious opportunity, which Sergei Rebrov scuffed wide.
Disappointingly, the first half contained a mean measure of entertainment and a large quota of irritable, destructive tackles. Additionally, Villa hardly created a chance of any serious consequence.
Merson and Lee Hendrie were submerged in the turmoil that was midfield, and ahead of them Juan Pablo Angel and Darius Vassell got little change from Ledley King and the diligent Goran Bunjevcevic. Poyet consistently rose above production-line football and would surely have beaten Schmeichel with a powerful shot from 15 yards had it not felled Mark Delaney on the way.
There was a sense that even the Spurs fans would not have been unhappy to see their former favourite David Ginola come off the bench for Villa at the earliest opportunity. The game badly needed a showman. When he did appear, after an hour, he got a rousing reception from a home crowd that always viewed him as the archetypal Tottenham player.
Indeed, Villa immediately grew some confidence. Neil Sullivan had to push a looping header from Hassan Kachloul on to a post, but Spurs felt seriously deprived when an over-rugged tackle by the same player on Mauricio Taricco brought no penalty.
Even Poyet slowly became frustrated and less effective. Merson persevered without ever being enlightening and Ginola fluttered along the touchline without making much damaging progress.
In the end, had Gary Doherty's 89th-minute shot been a few inches lower and not clipped the crossbar, Spurs would have been flattered and Villa penalised for eking out a deserved draw in a performance which disappointed Gregory, who said: "If we have any aspirations for a Champions' League spot we must take our chances better." On this evidence the aspirations are not widely shared.
Tottenham Hotspur 0 Aston Villa 0
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