If you received a present this Christmas better than the one Daniel Levy wrapped up for Harry Redknapp in August you are fortunate indeed. The Tottenham chairman delivered Rafael van der Vaart to his manager at the end of the transfer window and Redknapp has been grinning like a kid with a new Buzz Lightyear ever since.
The Dutchman has only managed 15 appearances, but they have produced the touches of class Spurs fans regard as their birthright and, more importantly, 10 goals. His two last night enabled Spurs to render the dismissal of Jermain Defoe inside the first half-hour irrelevant as they underlined their continuing development as a major force.
Both goals were the result of sweeping moves which showcased the fluidity of Tottenham's football. There was also, however, backbone. Not so long ago Spurs, if they were down to 10 men away from home on a freezing night, would have crumbled. This time they drew the sting from Aston Villa with possession football, then picked them off.
"There's a good feeling about the club and it is amazing what you can achieve with a bit of belief," said Redknapp, adding, "there's no shortage of ability." Of Van der Vaart, who played as the lone forward after Defoe's departure, he said: "He has been fantastic for us. He is a 15-20 goals-a-year man, and a player, not just a goalscorer." Gérard Houllier, who tried to sign Van der Vaart for both Liverpool and Lyons, said: "He is a player who makes a difference."
There was something startling about the fact that it was the team coached by an Englishman who played the sweet football while the one managed by the creator of the acclaimed French coaching system was reduced to pushing a centre-half, James Collins, up front and bombarding Spurs' defence.
Houllier has, though, inherited a club in transition, their promising youngsters in need of direction, and it is too early to judge him. Last night's team was youthful in key areas. Fabien Delph, 21, made his first appearance since rupturing his cruciate ligament in April. With Jonathan Hogg, 22, he faced the much more senior opposition of Luka Modric and Wilson Palacios. On Villa's right flank the inexperienced pairing of Marc Albrighton and Eric Lichaj looked similarly overmatched against Spurs' in-form duo Gareth Bale and Benoît Assou-Ekotto.
For the opening quarter Villa matched their more illustrious Champions League-playing opponents, harrying them on the ball and themselves threatening. Villa had the first chances, with Heurelho Gomes making double saves from both Albrighton and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Defensively, though, Villa were being exposed. Brad Friedel made a sharp save from Defoe after Modric and Aaron Lennon had opened up the back four. The American was then beaten after 15 minutes but rescued by a mistaken referee's assistant. Delph and Collins assumed a deep free-kick from Van der Vaart was going out. Alan Hutton pulled it back and Younes Kaboul volleyed in only for the official to indicated the ball had gone out. Television replays suggested he was wrong. Spurs' opener had merely been delayed. Nine minutes later Van de Vaart turned in Hutton's first-time cross after 23 minutes following a superb raking cross-field pass from Modric.
Then came Defoe's inexplicable elbow on Collins. Assou-Ekoto thrashed the ball out of defence and as Collins rose to head Defoe led with his arm, catching Collins just under the chin. Martin Atkinson, well-placed, had little choice but to show the red card. Villa Park was suffused with renewed hope and noise but the 10 men not only kept the ball for embarrassingly long periods, they created the best chance of the remainder of the half with Palacios bringing a fine save from Friedel.
At the break Houllier, seeking more guile, and to retain the one-man advantage, withdrew Hogg – already booked and odds-on to collect another card. Villa had the bulk of possession, but struggled to get in behind the visitors, resorting to crosses which, for the most part, Kaboul and Michael Dawson dealt with easily. Carlos Cuellar twice found some space, but failed to test Gomes with either header.
Spurs' greater class was underlined by their second goal. Stewart Downing's cross was cleared towards Van der Vaart whose deft flick released Bale. The tormentor of Internazionale sprinted at Villa's defence, advancing 60 yards and stepping inside Cuellar, before finding Lennon. He rolled the ball back to Van der Vaart, who shot first time inside the far post.
Redknapp withdrew the Dutchman soon afterwards, a wise precaution on a freezing night, given his fragile hamstrings, but eight minutes later the game was back in the balance as Albrighton's cross eluded everyone to sneak inside the far post. Spurs, with Crouch playing as a third centre-half, survived Villa's late barrage to secure a win that took them fifth.
Substitutes: Aston Villa Delfouneso (Heskey, 39), Petrov (Hogg, 46), Pires (Delph, 74).
Tottenham Crouch (Van der Vaart, 74), Jenas (Lennon, 88), Corluka (Modric, 90).
Booked: Aston Villa Delph, Hogg, Agbonlahor Tottenham Gomes, Hutton, Modric.
Sent off: Tottenham Defoe
Man of the match Van der Vaart.
Referee M Atkinson (W Yorkshire).
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