Tottenham 2 Manchester City 1: The alchemy of Carrick lifts Spurs' Europe push

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The Independent Football

Life can be tough as the poor relations. Tottenham, ahead of Arsenal all season, still find their neighbours hogging the spotlight and may yet be deprived by them of a first shot at the European Cup since Danny Blanchflower's glory days 45 years ago.

At least a victory here in the easiest looking of their last six games stretched the gap between the north London pair to five points, with Arsenal's difficult fixture at Old Trafford today being the first of two games in hand. The key date appears to be the derby in a fortnight's time at Highbury.

Manchester City know all about playing second fiddle as well, of course. They did after all once achieve a magnificent championship triumph, only for United to take the European Cup and all the headlines barely a week later. Victory over the old enemy at Eastlands in January was one of few highlights since a poor Christmas holiday period, and from a promising seventh place they have fallen right out of contention. This was a fifth successive defeat, albeit a more respectable one than the loss at home to Middlesbrough last weekend when eye-witnesses (or ear-witnesses) described Stuart Pearce as blistering paint from the walls.

The manager was much happier with his team's efforts yesterday, though they went two goals down on either side of half-time and were never quite convincing enough to have deserved a point. "The reaction was fine," he said. "Confidence is what's lacking and as soon as we get a win the weight of the world will be lifted off us. We made things hard for ourselves with some elementary mistakes."

Martin Jol, once a team-mate of Pearce's at Coventry, veered between the bullish, maintaining that Spurs can hold on to fourth place, and a refusal to count chickens or points as he contemplates games away to Everton, Arsenal and West Ham, and only two remaining home matches with United and Bolton. "Our attitude and application were just about 100 per cent," he said, "but I'm still not satisfied. We're having to dig out results."

Once the goals went in here, they should have been comfortable. Michael Carrick's effortless control from deep in midfield, Robbie Keane's vivacity in attack and Aaron Lennon's trickery down the right ought to have earned the lead much earlier than the 43rd minute. They were held up by the unpredictable David James, who saved fierce free-kicks by Carrick and Jermaine Jenas, turned Keane's drive onto the crossbar, and almost threw it all away by losing possession trying to dribble past Keane outside his area. The ball fell for Mido, who allowed Ben Thatcher to make a recovering tackle.

The goalkeeper was unfortunate with the first goal, beating out another good effort from Keane, whose sleight of foot had deceived his fellow Dubliner Richard Dunne, only for Paul Stalteri to follow up and claim his first Premiership goal. Poor defending brought Tottenham a second soon after the interval. Trevor Sinclair headed a corner weakly away from the left-back position and was then caught ball-watching as Teemu Tainio played the ball behind him for Carrick, venturing forward for once, to drive a powerful angled shot across James. It was only his second score for the club in 70 appearances, which suggests that with such shooting ability he might be encouraged to go forward more often.

Jol felt that his team were caught after that between chasing a decisive third and defending the lead. But before they had much time to assess the options, City were back in the game by the simplest of means. Sylvain Distin hurled a throw-in half the width of the pitch and the expensive young Greek striker Georgios Samaras tapped it in.

There might have been a fourth goal in the space of 11 minutes when Keane was harshly flagged offside as he turned to knock in a pass from Jenas. Having it disallowed meant Spurs were vulnerable for a while, during which the outstanding prospect Micah Richards had a shot cleared by Lee Young-Pyo, and Paul Robinson saved well from the substitute Albert Riera. James was eventually called upon again, turning Stalteri's deflected cross-shot onto a post, and in added time Robinson, faced with another long throw from Distin, came confidently to claim the ball and the points.

"If Arsenal win all their games, we'll have a problem," Jol admitted. "But I wouldn't swap positions with them. If we have the same effort as today, we have a big chance. Fourth place would be an unbelievable achievement."