Sunday, March 30, 2008

Tales of the unexpected

Spurs 1 - 4 Newcastle Utd

Hands up who saw THAT coming?

The win over Fulham last Saturday - the first of Kevin Keegan's second stint in charge - might have come as a huge relief, but needed putting into perspective: defeating a side who'd not won away since September 2006 hardly called for street parties. All the same, the players seem to have been as buoyed with renewed confidence and optimism as us fans. The result? Our most comprehensive and satisfying win of the season, on an afternoon when most of us would have looked on a point as a bonus.

Given our recent revival, it wasn't a great surprise that Keegan sent out the same side for the third game in a row. Once again, then, we lined up with a three man strikeforce, Michael Owen playing in the hole behind Obafemi Martins and Mark Viduka. Away from home against a team that attacks with the incision and freedom of Spurs, it may have looked suicidal, but in the event it was the supposed master tactician Juande Ramos who was made to look naive and foolish. Shuffling his own pack to incorporate Darren Bent and match our 4-3-3 formation, Ramos must have been dismayed to see Nicky Butt and ASBO dominate their opposite numbers and dictate all the play, particularly in the second period. Not even reverting to their more familiar 4-4-2 could stem the black and white tide.

The way we started out suggested a determination to draw first blood, and we could easily have taken the lead inside the first ten minutes. First Habib Beye robbed Jonathan Woodgate inside the area - our old boy was mercifully sluggish and out-of-sorts throughout - and smashed a left-footed shot against the face of the bar with Paul Robinson static, and then ASBO brought an uncomfortable sprawling save from the 'keeper.

Our hosts, suddenly stung into action, went close themselves when Woodgate's header was pushed away by Steve Harper, and then edged ahead in the 26th minute, Bent placing his header wide of Harper's despairing dive. It's saying something that the £17m striker is widely considered to have been an expensive flop, but has still scored about as regularly as our front three.

The familiar away-day collapse was on the cards, but credit must go to the players for digging deep and when our equaliser came, in first half stoppage time, it was deserved. Butt grabbed the winner in this fixture last year, and it was he who calmly stroked a shot into the bottom corner from Geremi's pass.

That was just the platform we needed and, spurred on by Keegan's rallying half-time team talk, we took to the pitch for the second period and proceeded to take Spurs apart. A fiercesome long-range drive from ASBO which whistled past the post served notice of our intent, and five minutes later we were in front. Michael Dawson's clumsy push on Martins gave us a free-kick on the edge of the area, and Geremi seized upon the opportunity belatedly to register his first goal for the club. In truth, though, it owed as much, if not more, to Viduka's pasty-enhanced girth as to the Cameroon international's deadball prowess. Having attached himself to the end of the Spurs wall, the Australian then shifted his considerable bulk at the last minute to give Geremi's low shot a clear path into the net.

Viduka himself was next to try his luck, his curling shot pushed wide and behind by Robinson, but we didn't have to wait long for a third. Having beaten his man wide on the right, Martins looked to be crumbling to the turf but somehow kept his footing and slid the ball into the area for Viduka to dummy and Owen to finish sweetly. Man Utd's demolition of Villa yesterday had even this avowed Red Devils hater salivating, mainly with envy, but here we were, watching champagne football being served up by players who so often this season have barely managed the equivalent of flat Lambrini.

We were thankful to Jose Enrique for a goal-line clearance to prevent Dimitar Berbatov pulling a goal back, and Owen spurned a great chance for his second, but, with seven minutes remaining, we caught Spurs cold on the break, Martins racing away from two defenders and slipping the ball past Robinson. Cue the gymnastics in front of the away fans.

And there it was - 4-1 to the goldfish bowl. Hope you enjoyed watching it from the stands, JJ. Can we play you every week?

The three points, unexpected but eagerly accepted, saw us move onto 35 points and up to the relatively heady heights of 12th. Of course, the other key result of the weekend was Arsenal's victory at their bogey team Bolton, one that looked extremely improbable given that they were two goals and a man down at the break - the upshot being that we're now nine points clear of the relegation zone. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the Gunners, then - how's humiliating your North London rivals in their own back yard by way of thanks, lads?

So, beat Reading at St James's on Saturday and we should be fine. Safe to say the Royals won't be looking forward to their visit as much as we will.

A Spurs fan's perspective: Harry Hotspur (you might also like to take a look at the match preview mocking our "turgid brand of football"...)

Other reports: BBC, Guardian


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