For the first 35 games of the Premier League season, Emmanuel Adebayor contributed little to Tottenham’s attempts to qualify for the Champions League. All of a sudden, he appears the man most likely to guide them into the top four. Even for such an unpredictable footballer, this is quite a revival.
Adebayor’s winning goal at Stoke, six minutes from full-time, moved Spurs’ into fourth place, at least until Tuesday, when Arsenal face Wigan. Should the Gunners fail to beat the FA Cup winners, Spurs will head into their final match of the season, against Sunderland on Sunday, in control of their destiny.
After his contributions against Chelsea, where he scored one goal and created the other in the 2-2, and Stoke, Adebayor is suddenly flying. Stoke felt aggrieved with referee Kevin Friend for showing a second yellow card to Charlie Adam early in the second half, but Spurs deserve credit for fighting back strongly from a goal down. Results elsewhere ensure Stoke will contest a sixth consecutive season in the top flight, a fine achievement for the club.
Steven Nzonzi gave Stoke the lead after only three minutes before Clint Dempsey equalised 17 minutes later. Adebayor celebrated his winner with extravagance, but the forward’s dance routine will seem modest in comparison with the joy at White Hart Lane should Spurs finish above Arsenal. “The dream is still alive for us,” said their head coach, Andre Villas-Boas.
Tottenham have now gathered 23 points this season from losing positions, but their vulnerability at the back has been apparent in recent weeks, during which they have kept only one clean sheet in 12 league matches.
Spurs supporters hoping for greater durability from their team were disappointed immediately. Adam – booed throughout by the visiting fans – won a free-kick on the right and when he delivered, Nzonzi drifted into space and headed the ball in off the near post.
It was the 1,000th goal in the Premier League this season, and Stoke could not have wished for a better beginning to the game that marked their 150th anniversary.
Stoke were dominant; Spurs ill-at-ease, with goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and centre-back Steven Caulker particularly jittery. The home side’s work rate and aggression troubled Villas-Boas’ team with Adam, targeted by Spurs fans because of bad tackles on Gareth Bale during his spells with Blackpool and Liverpool, a regular threat on the right.
Yet Villas-Boas’ side have shown their mettle many times during this campaign, and they did so again here.
Marc Wilson did well to intercept Scott Parker’s cross-field pass intended for Aaron Lennon, but when the loose ball fell to Dempsey, the American’s instinctive effort from 30 yards looped into the net, with Stoke goalkeeper Asmir Begovic poorly positioned.
Throughout the opening 45 minutes, there was a definite edge to the match, with anger never far below the surface. Huth, Begovic and Adam were all booked by referee Kevin Friend before – to the joy of the Spurs supporters – Adam received another yellow card, barely a minute into the second half. “You see some challenges in some games that don’t get bookings and then you see two like that hat received yellow cards, and that really disappoints me,” said Stoke manager Tony Pulis. “I don’t think Charlie touched the player with either challenge.
Both Adam’s cautions came for fouls on Jan Vertonghen, the first a late challenge as the Belgian tried to clear, the second a trip as Vertonghen accelerated forward on the left.
One of Stoke’s principal strengths is, however, their defensive organisation, and as brightly as Bale has shone this season, Tottenham would have been much more menacing at the start of the second half had they been able to rely on the guile of Luka Modric, who was sold to Real Madrid last summer.
What opportunities they had were fleeting. Bale’s low corner hit Dempsey and bounced over from six yards, with the forward scarcely aware of what had happened. Tom Huddlestone forced his way into the penalty area and the ball broke to Bale, whose cross-shot was too close to Begovic.
With a little more than 20 minutes remaining, Spurs should have taken the lead but Vertonghen, alone at the far post, headed Huddlestone’s free-kick over the bar.
Jermain Defoe replaced Lennon with 15 minutes remaining and shortly after he had done so Mousa Dembele, another substitute, slid a delicate pass to Bale inside the penalty area, only for the Welshman to shoot just wide after eluding the excellent Ryan Shawcross. It was a chance he should have taken.
Spurs’ pressure meant Stoke had space on the break, meaning they could still cause danger. From Dean Whitehead’s free-kick, Shawcross found room at the far post to plant a header just over the bar.
Spurs drew breath, attacked again, and this time their work brought reward. Dembele guided Bale’s pass into the path of Dempsey, who was played onside by Andy Wilkinson. Dempsey drove the ball across goal and Adebayor provided the firm finish that was required.
Life is rarely straightforward where Tottenham are concerned, and there was still time for Wilson to head wide a cross from substitute Cameron Jerome, who had outwitted Vertonghen on the Stoke right.
Wigan produced one of the surprise results of the season by beating Manchester City at Wembley two days ago. Now, those who hold Spurs’ fortunes in their hearts will them to produce another. “Arsenal’s experience is immense and you expect them to do their job,” said Villas-Boas. Yet Adebayor’s sudden renaissance proves that nothing can be taken for granted.