The Portuguese manager still has work to do if his Spurs side are to reach the levels of his former club Chelsea
Football’s capacity to surprise should never be underestimated. On a night that ended with Tottenham playing catch-up in the conjoined North London slow bicycle race towards that final Champions League place, there was the rare and perhaps even unique spectacle of the home fans routinely booing both managers: their own soon-to-be-ex, Rafa Benítez, and their last-but-one ex, André Villas-Boas. Perhaps Chelsea fans are simply inured to it all by now, choosing instead to save time and simply boo everybody in a suit, past or present.
Beyond the boos this was a brilliantly entertaining 2-2 draw featuring many examples of the kind of fluid attacking play Villas-Boas’s team must produce if it wishes to compete at Champions League level, albeit for Spurs pretty much all of it involved the team in blue shirts. Indeed, it was a slightly confusing night all round as Spurs extracted a late point with a display that was high on grit and yet emerged with a sense that the season may now have tipped decisively away from them.
Afterwards Villas-Boas spoke about Tottenham’s “determination and ambition”. This ambition may be slightly concerning for Villas-Boas, who is currently sitting a space below the league position that saw Harry Redknapp sacked last season. If this was a tactical triumph of sorts for Villas-Boas, whose substitutions changed momentum in the last 15 minutes, it was also a match encircled by ex and soon-to-be-ex-Chelsea managers (like being President of the United States, it feels like you never really stop being an ex-Chelsea manager).
With Villas-Boas, Benítez and the half-glimpsed spectre of José Mourinho lurking ever closer, of the three ex and interims it was Villas-Boas for whom there was most at stake. It has been a season of periodic, if occasionally stuttering, progress for a manager who really could do with an upward spike on his personal CV to dispel the sense that, for all his progressive methods and air of endearing B movie charisma, he cannot amount to anything more than a Europa League Mourinho. This is entirely unfair, of course: in a saner footballing world Villas-Boas, who is a very talented manager, would simply be left to nurture a team, perhaps given a Ferguson-like bedding-in period in which to bloom. But then, this is the Premier League and for Spurs this match had an air of, if not quite make or break, then certainly of a defining moment when it comes to setting the barometer on Villas-Boas’s first season.
Determination aside, Spurs can point to the isolated moments of quality that brought their goals, both with their origins in Emmanuel Adebayor, who had his best game of the season. Villas-Boas had sent his team out in his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation with the world’s most indolent all-action lone striker looking animated in the opening minutes and providing a brilliant individual moment to equalise Oscar’s opener. Since signing for £5m last August, Adebayor has lapsed at times into a parody of forward languor, but his goal in the 25th minute was a reminder of the high-ceilinged talent that lurks behind that kitten-sized attention span. Fed by Lewis Holtby, Adebayor carried the ball 30 yards, all spindly galloping legs, and curled a sublime shot over Petr Cech and into the far corner.
Either side of this Chelsea were often seductively rampant, a team of visibly superior craft in midfield. It’s hard to blame Villa-Boas for this: he might even claim some credit for Chelsea’s fluidity. Again, though, it was Spurs’ porous centre that let them down.
Chelsea’s second goal was beautifully finished by Ramires, an instant toe-poke finish on the run after lovely play by Fernando Torres. But neither Scott Parker, again looking like a worryingly immobile central midfield dalek, nor Tom Huddlestone tracked his forward run.
And for Benítez, the other half of that graceless double booing, these are almost rather carefree end days at Stamford Bridge. How delicious it would be if this brief Benítez spring –a European final, a strong league finish, plenty of fine attacking play from a happy-looking team – comes in time to be something that Chelsea fans might even look back on with a little fond nostalgia.
Certainly there was evidence in the composed menace of Eden Hazard and the usual floating excellence of Juan Mata of the levels to which Tottenham must aspire, a team of pace in strictly delineated areas and one roving smart gun of a midfielder. When Gareth Bale doesn’t play, Spurs are a team of workers, but they fought to the end against superior opponents. And yet on a night of the multidirectional managerial booing, it seemed fitting that the real winners should be elsewhere. Mourinho, if it is to be he, will inherit a team that look, more than at any time in the last year, like they might yet be cut from champion cloth. Arsenal have it in their own admittedly rather tremulous hands to finish fourth. For Villas-Boas, a season of sporadic gains might just be tipping away at the last.