Tottenham 0 Liverpool 1: Jol's medicine fails to cure Spurs woe

Spurs' chase for Champions' League place stutters in face of Gerrard-inspired Liverpool
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The Independent Football

Officially, he is one of the newest Members of the Order of the British Empire. On the Kop, they will prefer to believe that the award is simply because Merseyside Boy Excels. Here yesterday Steven Gerrard MBE didn't quite live up to that ready-made headline. Football is rarely that obliging.

But on a day when Liverpool refused to accept that honours could end up even, their captain would have been thankful just to leave here last night with his team claiming the points which will restore their Champions' League qualification ambitions after the defeat at Blackburn. And, maybe, equally relieved that he didn't depart with the dishonour of a late dismissal to accompany his gong. Which is not to suggest that Gerrard was anything less than his typical, influential self. Just that these were neither the conditions - squalling, driving rain in the second half - nor circumstances for a profusion of slide-rule passes or trademark long-range drives.

It was one for driving his team, clenched-fisted, to victory as Tottenham threatened to claim a share of the spoils from a frenetic match. Gerrard, having already contributed to Luis Garcia's winner, albeit fortuitously, berated his team constantly in the last third of the game.

He ended the encounter in one of those moods when he appears to be fighting the world, and a less benign referee than Mark Halsey might have taken drastic action when the Liverpool captain raised his hands to the Spurs centre-back Calum Davenport and then caught Tom Huddlestone. The official took no action on either occasion. "In that kind of situation, players always get a bit nervous," his manager, Rafael Benitez, said. "It was just heat of the moment."

It was some heat, some friction, as Spurs strove for an equaliser. For all their endeavours after the interval, when Steve Finnan headed against his own bar, Hossam Ghaly spurned an inviting chance and the goalkeeper Pepe Reina denied Jermain Defoe, the visitors just about deserved to preserve their lead, established in the first half by Garcia. Ultimately, this was a victory forged on the anvil of Liverpool's herculean second-half rearguard action; one which contrasted enormously with what had preceded it.

That could be explained, in part, by the Spurs manager, Martin Jol, being forced to separate Defoe and Dimitar Berbatov, who have proved such a potent pairing in December, during which they have scored nine goals between them.

Berbatov had reported ill on Friday, with what Jol described as a 40-degree fever. Mido was also unfit, and underwent a fitness test before the game. The Spurs manager told him that he had to play and to take painkillers. Berbatov was named as substitute. In the event, Mido and Defoe barely troubled Reina in a frustrating first half for the home team, despite the promptings of an imposing midfielder, Huddlestone. Spurs' one chance in that period came when Mido was fortuitously offered a fine chance, following a rebound off Finnan. But the Egyptian's sat nav was horribly awry.

His strike partner's 11 goals in the last 10 games have transformed him from the understudy he was earlier in the season to the lead performer, although the irony remains that Defoe was granted the oppor-tunity for an extended run only by injury to the more versatile Robbie Keane. His future here reportedly remains uncertain, but Jol insisted: "He's such an essential part of our set-up. How many times do I have to say that?"

Tuesday's defeat by Blackburn had been one of six Liverpool away reverses this season, and Benitez, in highly vocal mood here, had reacted by restoring Dirk Kuyt to his starting XI. Peter Crouch, who spent time at Tottenham as a junior, was relegated to the bench.

The statistics say that Liverpool are the team with most shots off target this season. This point was emphasised when a splendid move involving Xabi Alonso, Steve Finnan and Craig Bellamy ended with Kuyt chipping the ball just wide.

It was in added time that Liverpool secured the advantage they narrowly merited. Didier Zokora's misplaced pass gave Gerrard the chance to combine in a one-two with Kuyt, only for the captain to mistime his effort. The ball ran kindly, though, to the feet of the unmarked Garcia, and he made no mistake.

Jermaine Pennant replaced Bellamy just after the interval while the Anfield old boy Danny Murphy appeared for Spurs, but the most significant change was Berbatov's arrival in place of Mido. As the heavens opened, the striker enlivened Tottenham's attack immediately, and within minutes his viciously struck cross had forced Finnan to head against the bar.

By then Crouch had replaced Kuyt, and the England man operated as a lone striker as Liverpol's defence held on tenaciously to their lead. With Jamie Carragher a commanding presence, and their captain exemplifying the visitors' spirit, Liverpool stood firm.