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Mar 13, 2014

Spurs' dream of Euro-elite status won't materialise under current setup


LONDON -- When Tottenham and Benfica last met at White Hart Lane, nearly 52 years ago in the European Cup semifinals, the men from Lisbon triumphed, but the Londoners looked on the brink of something big. After Spurs’ 2-1 second-leg win in vain -- "the hardest game of my life," in the words of Benfica’s coach Bela Guttmann -- Eusebio, Mario Coluna $amp; Co. went on to sweep aside Alfredo Di Stefano’s Real Madrid in the Amsterdam final. Bill Nicholson’s side, it seemed certain, would have their turn. “They can win the European Cup very soon,” Guttmann had said. If his famous curse on Benfica lingers, set upon the club as he left months after, his prediction for Tottenham has proved rather less accurate. More than half a century on, they’re still waiting. It took until 2010 for Spurs to return to the competition at all, but when Gareth Bale was weaving his magic against Internazionale and the rest, it seemed like the beginning of something. This night had the setting of something special. White Hart Lane often feels like that under the lights and Thursday the claustrophobic arena was at its most raucous, certainly in the early stages when the home faithful rose to meet the bar set by Benfica’s magnificently cacophonous following. Tim Sherwood’s side plainly lacked the voice -- and the personality -- to fill the opera house, however. Even if the Europa League hasn’t quite caught on as the potential bridge to the Champions League that clubs are happy to view it as in the leagues of many of our continental neighbours, Tottenham seemed a million miles away from the latter competition here. It was easy to sympathise with Sherwood, and to understand his bewildered shrug on the touchline in the aftermath of Benfica’s second goal, one of the simplest conceivable from a set piece. Ruben Amorim’s corner was bobbed simply to the near post and the towering Luisao headed home unchallenged from an accusing vacuum of space. Tottenham were taught a lesson by Jorge Jesus’ side, despite the coach having made four changes from his habitual strongest XI and leaving his best two midfielders, Enzo Perez and Nicolas Gaitan, on the bench for the start of the match. Before the match, it was tempting to think that Perez’s prodigious covering of ground and hard tackling in particular would be missed against the Premier League side. Yet even without their star pair, and last season’s top scorer Lima, Jesus $amp; Co. had too much for Spurs. In keeping with a side that had won 18 and drawn two of its past 20 matches in all competitions coming into this game, Benfica were decisive where Spurs were weak. They were organised and well-oiled at the back and, in a largely uneventful first half, broke at lightning pace, via the effervescent Lazar Markovic -- whom Chelsea are strongly rumoured in Portugal to have a first option on -- and the excellent Amorim, who prompted well from deep. Tottenham were attempting to regroup from Saturday’s Jekyll and Hyde performance at Chelsea, having started promisingly and finished disastrously. Here, they seemed uncertain how to approach a side in far better nick than themselves. Their high defensive line invited the swift counter -- and was horribly exposed when Amorim’s dagger of a pass slipped in the rapid Rodrigo for the first-half opener -- yet they failed to press enough to discomfort Luisao, his central defensive partner Ezequiel Garay and the pair’s midfield foil, Lubomir Fejsa. For all Sherwood’s postmatch expression that he had “no problem with the attitude or desire” of his team, the main area in which they fell short of Benfica was intensity. It was a similar story from dead balls, with the defending for Luisao’s two goals lamentably poor. Any brief crib of Benfica highlights would alert one that the captain and Garay are a dangerous pair in the opposition penalty box. The tactical malfunctions summed up Sherwood’s Spurs at the moment, even if they are far from being the manager’s fault alone. He certainly didn’t help himself here, starting with his selection. If Sherwood’s prematch proclamation that he would pick on output rather than price tag or reputation was admirable, the logic in selecting Harry Kane, a 20-year-old without a Premier League goal to his name, instead of Roberto Soldado, was hard to grasp. There is, it appears, a fine line between being your own man and simply being pig-headed. Soldado, still positively serenaded by the White Hart Lane crowd, got his chance only with 15 minutes to go, when the game was already at arm’s length. Nacer Chadli and Andros Townsend, who might have given Benfica something different to think about, were both ultimately given the night off as spectators from the bench. Results and performances like this -- and one can only imagine the magnification of the plentiful boos from the stands should Tottenham repeat this display in Sunday’s north London derby -- won’t help Sherwood’s cause, but it’s hard not to feel that his disregard for chairman Daniel Levy’s financial model will ultimately truncate any hopes of a long-term future for him. Last summer’s signings can’t all be written off now, however disappointing they’ve been to date. They were intended to gradually assimilate and build toward a future over the next few years. Instead, their adaptation is on hold, and their value as assets is depreciating by the day. This is about as off message as it’s possible to be. Benfica have their own demons to face. Recovering from last year’s Europa League final heartbreak against Chelsea, it is much to their chagrin that they are already back in Europe’s second-tier competition when this year’s Champions League final will be at their own Estadio da Luz. In upstairs terms, they were forced into 70 million euros of January sales (while Nemanja Matic went to Chelsea, Rodrigo and Andre Gomes were sold to an investment fund) to aid cash flow. Yet Jesus’ side still have their identity, which has been theirs ever since he walked through the door at the Luz in 2009. It can be a touch bombastic, as Jesus’ touchline spat with Sherwood proved, but it is there. All Tottenham found out here is that they face a steep climb to reach the place in Europe’s elite that they covet.