Saturday, 23 October 2010

Will Bale's night be a poisoned chalice?

Inter took Tottenham apart at the San Siro on Wednesday. At half time it was 4-0 and Harry Redknapp admitted that he was bracing himself for 8 or 9. That it finished 4-3 is seen by many to be a positive result. Not many teams will count themselves favourite at the San Siro (last year they were unbeaten at home in the Champions League having played Barcelona twice and Chelsea). To lose by a single goal, having been down to ten men for 80 odd minutes, is being seen as a positive sign.

Of course the plaudits haven't really been levelled at Tottenham's fightback but at Gareth Bale. This is usually symptomatic of the media's desire to create an individual hero for success. In reality success and failure can only be accomplished as a team. In this case however, the goals were largely the result of excellent opportunism by Bale who has a bright future ahead of him. Inter were linked with him in in 2009 whilst Mourinho was at the club, and again this summer but nothing materialised. This display will surely intensify rumours in future transfer windows. Having spoken to coaches at Tottenham it seems unlikely such a move will take place. When Inter first registered interest in him, Tottenham fans were exasperated with his fluctuating performances. However having invested so much in him as a club and knowing all along that he would become a left winger rather than a leftback, it seems unlikely that he will be sold. A team like Tottenham who are building something positive for the future will not willingly sell their best players.

"Tottenham is a club that is looking to progress, not to sell its best players. Selling him would send out the wrong signals. It would make us a selling club. We have to build a team around him and if Tottenham can progress to become a regular Champions League team, he would be a big part of that" Redknapp.

With Bale showing no signs of wanting to leave it seems clear he will stay. For now he has certainly found his level. He will see plenty of playing time and be allowed to develop at a good club without bad performances being overly scrutinised.

So far, so good. Where is this poisoned chalice? It lies not in Bale's progress but in the effect this late, unwarranted resurgence could have on the team's approach to the game in London. Tottenham will look at the final score and be buoyed by it. The momentum of having felt such joy in the final 10 minutes will carry through into the next game. Tottenham risk complacency.

It would be foolish to demean Bale's achievements but preventing all three goals from happening again will be very easy. For one, Julio Cesar could have done better on the first two goals. He has come out and said,

"I was so angry. I didn't even touch the ball. I was asleep on the first goal. Even the second was avoidable. The third wasn't. It was like my brother was in goal, not me."

A goalkeeper of his calibre should not be beaten so resoundingly for two replica goals.

Secondly, the threat of Bale from deep positions has been highlighted. Zanetti, despite being a model sportsman and taking his goal superbly for the first, is 37 and cannot be expected to catch a speedy 21 year old. There is a reason he plays in midfield not fullback and it was highlighted on Wednesday night. Expect extra cover. As Inter are away from home you might well see Maicon being more cautious in his forward runs, looking instead to contain the threat that comes from Bale.

Finally, and most importantly, Inter will not be relaxed. Bale's second goal came from a very lax pass from Lucio to Maicon under no pressure. Having not received the ball Maicon made very little attempt to stop Bale advancing up the pitch. The third goal came from the young Inter leftback losing the ball cheaply in Inter's final third. Notably, aside from Lennon's pressing, there was little pressure on surrounding Inter players. If this had been a two legged tie you could not imagine Inter giving the ball away so cheaply twice. Coutinho, who impressed in the first half, said this:

"We made a mistake in thinking the game was over, an error we cannot repeat. We had a lapse in concentration, but fortunately did not compromise the victory."

Inter's confidence was too high and there was not the requisite tension. In a two-legged tie the tension would have been there. As it was they allowed the energy to dip and Bale took advantage magnificently.

Inter will not be underestimating Tottenham as they might have done had Bale not scored two late goals. It is unlikely Tottenham will underestimate Inter and will come out with great verve. They will be buoyed by two things that were missing in Italy. Firstly, they will have the home crowd behind them. There will be no sense of being overawed and the Tottenham home support is excellent. Secondly, they will have Van der Vaart back from suspension. His equaliser again today against Everton underlines his importance to the side. Tottenham's success or failure could hinge on how well Inter cope with this threat, as he has been in fine form so far this season.

These sources of optimism for Spurs should be tempered by several other issues. Firstly, Inter will have no complacency that they might have otherwise enjoyed. The requisite tension will be there for the full 90 minutes. Secondly, Tottenham have looked extremely unsettled at centreback. In the Champions League it is vital to have that understanding which comes only through playing time. If Inter have some easy tactical adjustments to cope with Tottenham threats at the San Siro, then Tottenham don't have such an obvious way of curtailing Eto'o or the movement of Sneijder, Coutinho, Pandev or Biabany behind. Thirdly, Chivu, Motta and Cambiasso will be back for Inter. The latter is especially welcome in trying to limit the influence of van der Vaart. Finally, a draw is a good result for Inter. Tottenham will be put under pressure by results elsewhere, particularly if Twente win. The home game against Werder Bremen should prove relatively unproblematic but the trip to Holland is not a simple one. Inter only managed a 2-2 draw.

If Tottenham are to have a good chance of success against Inter then they need to ensure they find a way of limiting Inter's midfield. Van der Vaart off Crouch has worked well this season. Van der Vaart's movement is excellent and his ability to read the game is a real asset. Bale and Lennon will surely start on the wings. This probably leaved two central midfielders to place. If Modric starts, as he did away from home, then there can be just one midfielder protecting the shaky central defensive partnership. Given that they lined up with just one holding player away, and given Redknapp's famed willingness to "have a go", it seems unlikely they'll sacrifice Modric's creativity for greater protection of their back four. Even if Inter choose to play solely on the counter then it is unlikely Tottenham will manage to keep Sneijder's passing, Coutinho's movement, Biabany's pace and Eto'o's finishing out for the whole game. Sneijder's through ball to Biabany that lead to the penalty is a perfect illustration of what Inter can do within 5 seconds of winning the ball. Tottenham beware.

An early goal for Tottenham could ease nerves and carry momentum further in their direction. The game will be decided by three things.

1) Inter's ability to deal with the pace and dribbling of Bale and Lennon. Maicon looks capable of dealing with Bale. Will Chivu or Santon deal with Lennon?

2) Who will see more of the ball: Sneijder or Van der Vaart? The dutch playmakers are both match winners and their influence on the game - and the systems designed to spoil both players - could prove decisive.

3) The extent to which Inter have learnt their mistakes from the game on Wednesday. If they have truly learnt from that then they will be very tough to break down and Bale's late goals leading to increased intensity from Inter, could prove to have been a posioned chalice for Tottenham.

An exciting game awaits us.


  1. Jurgen's Clansmen24 October 2010 at 19:13

    an exciting game indeed!

    "As Inter are away from home you might well see Maicon being more cautious in his forward runs, looking instead to contain the threat that comes from Bale."

    Reactive or responsive?!

  2. If Benitez instructs Maicon to watch Bale as a priority then it is responsive. Tottenham have a big threat and Inter need to deal with it. No problem.
    If Maicon is given licence to bomb forward and this is important to the way Inter counter attack, but he CAN'T... then that is reactive. If you like, Tottenham have won that particular tactical battle.

  3. I think what any team who are facing Spurs imminently is concentrating too much on Bale, the supremely in-form player. Spurs have plenty of other attacking talent at their disposal. Although as you say, Inter will not underestimate their opponents now, having come reasonably close to giving away a near-unassailable lead.

  4. Good point. Lennon, Van der Vaart, Crouch and Modric are all capable of turning the game and it would be fatal to concentrate on any one of these attacking threats. I think any hope of such an underestimation went with the late goals and I highly doubt Tottenham will win.