Tottenham Hotspur just wanted to focus on football last night, but they were reminded of the problems which have jeopardised their campaign to bring Champions League football back to White Hart Lane.
For all their many obvious strengths, the lack of a fit and reliable centre-forward is costing Tottenham, and has been for weeks. Their 1-1 draw with Stoke City last night did end a run of three straight league defeats, but it cannot be considered a satisfactory result.
The evening started with an optimistic minute of applause and T-shirt tribute for Fabrice Muamba. But with Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, writing in his programme notes that Spurs must now "resume our season", the fans will have gone home frustrated.
Arsenal, who were 12 points behind Spurs last month, are now one point ahead of their north London rivals. Chelsea, who host Tottenham on Saturday, are five behind but at one point last night appeared set to narrow the gap to just one. The intra-city fight to make next year's Champions League is getting tighter.
"It's all to play for," said Harry Redknapp afterwards. "We can still finish above Arsenal. There's a long way to go yet: there's everything to play for. Arsenal won't win every game, will they? I want to finish third still."
The frustration for Tottenham is that the problem is obvious. Last night Gareth Bale and Luka Modric, both returned to their correct positions, were very good. Running with the ball, creating chances for others, or breaking into the box, they built some good attacks. But Louis Saha, who started up front on his own and came off after 73 minutes, was a peripheral figure. With Emmanuel Adebayor missing due to a hamstring problem, Spurs lack a focal point.
So, for the third game in a row, Tottenham could not turn their possession into chances, never mind goals. Until Rafael van der Vaart's headed equaliser from Bale's cross in stoppage time, Spurs had been stifled by Stoke's fierce, massed defence.
"I felt we needed to break them down, if we could," Redknapp reflected. "They were always going to be bigger and stronger than us."
He even resorted to lying to his team at half time. "I said Arsenal were winning and Chelsea were winning," Redknapp admitted. "Chelsea weren't winning but I said, 'They're both winning. Let's get after them, we need a win'. It didn't work, did it, obviously because we only drew."
Stoke's defending started from the front, with Peter Crouch and Jon Walters, and no player in red and white ever looked anything other than desperate to shut down Tottenham. "They're a very, very hard-working group of players who just give everything for one another," manager Tony Pulis said. Their restrictive game, an irritation in the first-half, became an infuriation as the game went on. Their hassling, jockeying and blocking when the ball was in play, and their rather calmer approach when it was not, stopped Spurs from building up too much.
And, with 16 minutes left, they fought their way into an unlikely lead. Jermaine Pennant's teasing free-kick from the left was headed by Robert Huth, and the loose ball was turned in by Cameron Jerome. Not pretty, but certainly effective, it was a perfect goal to match Stoke's efforts.
It might have been against the balance of play, but none of Spurs' earlier chances had been particularly good. The best two in the first half came when Bale and Modric switched roles; the winger dropping deep and playing in the on-rushing midfielder, both of whose shots flew past the far post.
Saha had a shot tipped over by Asmir Begovic, and Jermain Defoe, who came on to support him at half-time, buzzed around dangerously though rarely threatened. Bale had a shot deflected onto the crossbar minutes before Jerome's goal. But van der Vaart, whose first league start since January was mixed at best, was the only Tottenham player who could find a way through.
Booked: Tottenham Van der Vaart. Stoke Palacios.
Man of the match Modric
Referee M Jones (Cheshire)
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