If there was any doubt about how seriously AVB is taking this season’s Europa League competition, it was comprehensively dispelled last night before the game even started. Unlike last season, where we became accustomed to seeing a largely reserve squad team trotting out for the club’s Europa League games under Harry Redknapp, against Lazio last night we saw essentially a full strength side sent out to do the job.
Sadly, it wasn’t quite mission accomplished at the end of the night, but the blame for that could be lain squarely at the door of the officials for disallowing two perfectly good goals, including what would’ve been a home debut goal for Clint Dempsey. At least that decision was a close call – there seemed to be nothing in the ‘foul’ that prevented the award of a deserved goal for Caulker late on. Thankfully, in this group, a failure to win against Lazio probably won’t damage our prospects too much – no disrespect to Maribor or Panathanaikos, but the two are definitely third and fourth favourites to make it out of the group.
Lazio themselves did little to dispel the Italian footballing stereotype. They only truly threatened on a handful of occasions, with Gonzalez thundering a strike off Hugo Lloris’s crossbar, and Klose failing to connect from ten yards out in the first half. For most of the rest of the game, they sat off Spurs and invited them to attack, and though the pace of captain for the night Aaron Lennon frequently punched through the defence on the wings, chances on goal were frequently stifled by the Italians’ stoic back line. Lazio fans also did little to dispel the sterotype of Italian supporters, goading Jermain Defoe with monkey noises that you can be sure will be punished by a paltry UEFA fine of around €3.
Handing Lennon the captaincy was a ballsy move from Andre Villas Boas, but in fairness, it was one that seemed to pay off for the large part. Lennon still has huge issues with final balls, as I frequently bemoan, but even with that handicap he created numerous problems for Lazio last night, and seemed lifted by the responsibility placed in him by the manager. He might not ever reach the heights we all want him to reach, but this was at least a step in the right direction.
Another who impressed was Hugo Lloris in goal. Against a backdrop of incredulous reaction in France at him not being a first-team shoe-in, Lloris kept his cool and cashed in a flawless performance that’ll have Brad Friedel looking nervously over his shoulder. Every aspect of the Frenchman’s performance was sublime – his presence in the box, his willingness to come and claim crosses, his quick and accurate distribution to kick-start counter attacks. I expect Friedel will still keep his place for the Premier League fixture against QPR this weekend, and that AVB’s plan is still to utilise Lloris mainly in the Europa League – but the American can be under no illusions that one slip could cost him his place.
Elsewhere, Kyle Naughton did an excellent job of covering at left back in the continued absence of Benoit Assou-Ekotto. His performance against Reading was promising, but slightly marred by a the giving away of a few cheap and unnecessary free-kicks. Last night, he seemed much more disciplined, and was rarely caught out by the Lazio attack – good news, since estimates suggest Assou-Ekotto could be out for a month, and we have no other dedicated left-backs. Of course, the bad news is that Naughton was left limping heavily at the end of the match by one of many ‘robust’ Lazio challenges; hopefully it’s nothing too serious, or we could be facing the beginning of the traditional Spurs defensive injury crisis even sooner than usual.
The more immediate concern has to be, after putting out such a strong side last night, whether we can replicate the performance against QPR at the weekend. AVB seems to have won over a lot of the fans undecided about his reign in the past week, but there’s still some work to do, and a first home win would be a perfect way to round off the week. It won’t be easy against a new look QPR team who’re starting to find their feet after an uncertain start, but another three points would instil even more confidence in the side.
On Twitter: @AEFSpurs.