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Feb 14, 2013

Bale brilliance lights up White Hart Lane

Hugo Lloris had said before Tottenham's Europa League meeting with his old club Lyon that he expected "a match of Champions League level". The French goalkeeper - a spectator here - wasn't far wrong, as this much-maligned competition had an occasion that crackled with a pleasing intensity. The respective coaches Andre Villas-Boas and Remi Garde were feeling it, perched studiously on the edge of the touchline like the pelican bookends from Bagpuss and Co.

Inevitably, it took a contribution from Gareth Bale to make the simmering catch fire. When Alexandre Lacazette clipped Mousa Dembele some 30 yards from goal at the close of the first half, there was something almost comical in the way Bale limbered up to take the free-kick in an imitation Ronaldo stance, even aping the bow-legged, deliberate steps back from the ball. There was no laughing when he replicated the Portuguese's other trademark trick, dipping the ball over the wall and into the far corner of Remy Vercoutre's net. When he repeated the feat with the last kick of a second half that had seen the hosts seriously tested, cheering Spurs jaws hit the floor. Lyon, like others have been before and will be again, were powerless to respond.

Earlier in a tight first period he had proven he was human, giving the visitors an incredible reprieve in the 36th minute when Kyle Walker blazed down the right, delivering a perfect low ball across goal, past Vercoutre. With Bale needing just to nudge into the empty net, he somehow let the ball hit him instead and it found its way back into the grateful goalkeeper's arms, via a stunned Emmanuel Adebayor.

If Tottenham's thrust sporadically threatened to sweep the game up, former Arsenal man Garde's side had proved competitive - just down the road from where he quietly began to build the foundations for his managerial career, taking notes from Arsene Wenger as a squad player in the late 1990s. Asked whether he expected any crowd baiting on his return to north London, Garde had conceded it was possible, wryly remarking at the time of the draw: "If they remember what I looked like in an Arsenal shirt."

His side had ridden out the August exit of Lloris, but a second turbulent transfer window of the season hasn't done Garde any favours. Only Michel Bastos and the little-used Fabian Monzon moved on, but whereas the uncertainty fostered a strange camaraderie back in August, the constant speculation took its toll this time. Jean-Michel Aulas' admission that "everybody is for sale, if the price is right" seemed scant recognition for a stellar opening to the season, which had taken the former champions back to the Ligue 1 summit.

Yoann Gourcuff rejected the chance to join Atletico Madrid while forward Lisandro Lopez saw a couple of bids for him from Juventus rejected. Villas-Boas was even interested in making a late move for the former Porto man. The destabilising of Lisandro is a real problem for the French side, with him being a real talisman. He gave up the captaincy early in January to concentrate on his form, and has struggled for fitness in recent weeks when not cutting an unhappy figure stationed out on the left. His input in Europe is surely vital too, given his excellent scoring record for both Porto and Lyon.

Any lack of sharpness is always likely to be punished at White Hart Lane, where visitors have come to expect zest and vigour from the hosts under the lights on these European evenings. When Lacazette was caught dozing on the ball by a hungry Benoit Assou-Ekotto in the opening minutes, the left-back's cross was nearly turned into the Lyon net by the French side's right-back, Anthony Reveillere.

With the powerful Gueida Fofana prominent, Lyon gained a foothold, and might have had a penalty on the quarter-hour. Bafetimbi Gomis appeared to be tripped in the area by Jan Vertonghen after wrong-footing the centre-half, but the Lyon man almost seemed to dissuade referee Pedro Proenca from giving him the decision by falling to the turf a little tardily.

The return of Adebayor gave Spurs a good focal point against the physical pairing of Milan Bisevac and Dejan Lovren, but removed the element of the formation that had made the team fly at the right moments in Saturday's win over Newcastle. Gareth Bale had roamed up front to spectacular effect then, but despite being given the freedom to switch sides here, didn't have quite the same licence.

Inside the cagey opening half-hour it was nevertheless Adebayor who had the clearest chance to break the deadlock, when Dembele picked the lock with a searing through pass to set him clear on Vercoutre, but the returning striker rapped his finish wastefully wide. If Bale's barely believable miss of a few minutes served any purpose, it was to spare the Togolese's blushes.

That was not the case when the resurgent Steed Malbranque delightfully nutmegged the unwitting striker later on. The midfielder was graciously received by the flock of his former parish and showed he has plenty of the old daring, shuttling the ball with confidence in a role reminiscent of latter-day Luka Modric. He was part of a doughty midfield.

Given the brilliance of Bale's opener and its timing, it said something for the reserves of spirit instilled by Garde that Lyon entered the second half with such positivity. It was never more on display than when Umtiti struck the equaliser, a delicious half-volley into Friedel's top corner from the edge of the area. The teenager had been given a chasing from Aaron Lennon in the first 45 minutes, and picked up a booking for his troubles, but showed the ebullience that should make him a star of France's future.

Lacazette also shone, dribbling past a series of challenges to hit a firm shot which Friedel superbly tipped over. Like his coach, Lacazette enjoyed a formative experience here, playing two Emirates Cup games in as many days on a 2009 weekend after scoring the winner for France in the European Under-19 Championship on the Friday. That feat may remain noteworthy, but Bale's heroics put it into perspective. In any context right now, home or abroad, he makes Tottenham favourites.

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