Superior Spurs look upward
Relegation? They were worried about it at Christmas but, if the form that brought this fourth consecutive victory is maintained, Tottenham might even start dreaming of the Champions League spot that Liverpool so desperately covet.
There was certainly no doubting Spurs' superiority on the day. It was built on the relatively young central defensive partnership of Gary Doherty and Anthony Gardner, whose splendid performances pointed up the inadequacy of Liverpool's Igor Biscan, featured busy midfield displays from Simon Davies and the debutant Michael Brown and was further distinguished by the first Premiership goal of Helder Postiga.
The notion that Liverpool, whose foreseeable fortunes depend on their finishing the season fourth, might go down without a fight was swept away by Harry Kewell's reply less than 20 minutes from the final whistle and Michael Owen had a plausible appeal for a penalty refused when Doherty handled. But Spurs' sharper, more fluent game earned a result that gave added pertinence to the question of why, if David Pleat can coax football like this from the players, the board are preparing to bring in a new manager.
True, the director of football did supervise four defeats, plus a Carling Cup exit on penalties, before the tide turned; he just needs to acquire a little consistency, that's all.
Both of these clubs had seen their fortunes take an upward turn since the turn of the year but, in individual terms, no one needed a fillip more than Postiga, the striker for whom Spurs paid £6 million to Porto last summer. The loss of Freddie Kanoute, who is with the Mali squad preparing for the African Cup of Nations after his well documented switch of footballing allegiance from France, offered Postiga this opportunity to improve on a solitary Carling Cup goal.
The 21-year-old looked eager to please from the outset and, having cut in from the left, made Paul Jones dive to save. But for sheer confidence in a striker we had to follow the play to the other end of the field.
A massive clearance by Jones was headed on by Emile Heskey to Owen, who hit the ball on the volley, resoundingly, only the most marginal of pulls taking it the wrong side of a post. Thrilling stuff. And far from out of context with the rest of the brisk, absorbing exchanges.
Although the goal that put Spurs in front midway through the first half was a penalty, a piece of remarkable skill made it possible. Gardner's long ball drifted towards Robbie Keane, who both ran cleverly and applied a delicious touch as he swivelled to collect, leaving Liverpool's defence stretched in the area and impelling Biscan to become entangled with his heels; after tottering, the Irishman fell. He got up and drove the penalty out of Jones's reach. And thus the ball came to be picked from a Liverpool net for the first time in 2004.
Just before this, Biscan had actually threatened the home goal, striding up for a corner and getting his head to the ball, which looped off Darren Anderton's shoulder, causing Kasey Keller little difficulty. But his principal job was to defend and on this occasion Keane proved just too clever for the Croatian. At his effervescent best, which he provided here, Keane would trouble most opponents.
Some excellent defending helped to keep Spurs level at the interval, notably from Doherty, who has begun to establish himself in the side under Pleat after years of doubt over whether his future was at the front or the back. Here he was equally impressive in battles of wits with Owen or more physical tests with Heskey. In midfield, meanwhile, Brown settled in nicely, buttressing the view that he was a bargain at £500,000 from Sheffield United.
Heskey played wide early in the second half and had the ball hooked from under his nose by Stephen Carr as he advanced on Keller. But just as Liverpool hinted at recovery they conceded another goal. Johnnie Jackson, the young left-sided Londoner who had replaced Stephane Dalmat at the interval, floated an astute ball through and Biscan obligingly misjudged it, letting Postiga move in front of him and stab wide of the exposed Jones.
After Steve Finnan had taken over from Biscan, Stephane Henchoz moving into the middle alongside Sami Hyypia, Liverpool reduced the deficit. Heskey took possession in the air and spread the ball to Kewell, who veered in from the right and squeezed his left-footed shot between Keller and the near post.
Tottenham: Keller, Carr, Doherty, Gardner, Taricco, Brown, Anderton, Dalmat (Jackson 45), Davies, Postiga (Zamora 78), Keane.
Subs Not Used: Hirschfeld, Bunjevcevic, Kelly.
Goals: Keane 25 pen, Postiga 54.
Liverpool: Jones, Henchoz, Hyypia, Biscan (Finnan 66), Traore (Riise 61), Murphy, Hamann, Kewell, Cheyrou, Heskey, Owen.
Subs Not Used: Dudek, Le Tallec, Carragher.
Goals: Kewell 75.
Ref: U Rennie (S Yorkshire).
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