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Mar 17, 2013

Jol gives Tottenham a familiar fright

Hush descended. Despite the break in play, it was the most rapt White Hart Lane had been during 45 minutes of execrable toil. Gareth Bale was down and did not look like getting up.

Spurs' very season rested on his recovery. Half-time was a waiting game. The ankle injury he received after a hefty challenge by Giorgios Karagounis looked serious, and Bale had limped through the three minutes of injury time.

Twenty minutes later, he took his place for the second half. There was also a touch of confusion as a half-time substitution was announced. Clint Dempsey for Michael Dawson pointed to Andre Villas-Boas going to three at the back, the strategy that had all but cost Roberto Mancini the title at Everton the previous day.

• Fitch: Will Tottenham 'Spurs' it up again this season?
• Villas-Boas: Organisation let us down

This was similarly costly. Benoit Assou-Ekotto, playing left wing-back, was caught out by Steve Sidwell's ball to Sascha Riether, and Dimitar Berbatov's finish was unusually inelegant - but effective. More hush descended, broken only by the celebrations among a disbelieving Fulham contingent.

Tottenham's relief over Bale turned to desperation as an unfamiliarity of shape bred confused and disjointed efforts to equalise. Until Jermain Defoe's saved shot in the 70th minute, they did not manage a decent effort on goal.

"We couldn't create as much as we normally create and we paid the price for that," Villas-Boas said. "We couldn't find the right spaces to get in behind them."

The influence of Bale, never running freely, was negligible. Villas-Boas, pacing the sidelines, was moving far more fluidly. Bale pulled up a couple of times, clearly in discomfort.

Suddenly, success has made a failing team of Tottenham. With nine games to play and the distraction of the Europa League, they look jaded and in dire danger of repeating the late-season slide that cost them last year.

"You can't hide from what has happened in the past with Spurs. You can just have another opportunity to fight what is written compared to the past," Villas-Boas said.

Same old Tottenham, always bottling? In the afterglow of victory against Arsenal a fortnight ago, Spurs were nailed on for the top four. Pressure had been put on by Arsenal's win at Swansea, while good tidings from Stamford Bridge were not expected. Spurs are hardly known for doing things the easy way, as Thursday's heart-stopping night in Milan proved. Chaotic defending at Anfield prevented them tightening their grip on third while Chelsea and Arsenal were not playing. A shoot-out between the three to the last day of the season now seems almost inevitable.

Martin Jol and Berbatov were returning heroes making themselves unwelcome. Jol had Spurs playing the brand of football their fans delight in, and but for a dodgy lasagne or norovirus outbreak - according to who you believe - would have brought Champions League football to the Lane four years ahead of Harry Redknapp.

The manner of Jol's departure - sacked during a UEFA Cup game as his replacement looked on - has not been forgotten. In the quieter surroundings of Craven Cottage, and with far less resources to hand, he continues to be a decent Premier League manager.

Berbatov's leaving of London was not quite so popular among Tottenham fans but they still appreciated an artist and can be satisfied that the Bulgarian's better football was played as a Spurs player.

Despite the trophies, he never quite made it at Manchester United and is far more suited to being the dominant performer at Fulham. Ten minutes in, White Hart Lane gasped in nostalgic admiration as Berbatov killed a long ball with a single touch.

Soon after, ironic cheers greeted a Berbatov pass that was nowhere near its intended target, and a typical pirouette away from his marker, but he would have his moment. On his fourth return to the Lane, his goal was celebrated in the muted fashion en vogue for returning players.

"Berbatov said: 'You have to trust me' and I thought he was joking," Jol said admiringly and jokingly of the match-winner. "The only thing is he wants is a day off when he scores. He's said it twice - against Stoke and here. I won't take it literally because I would owe him too much and I don't want to owe him too much."

Jol, while respectful, clearly enjoyed the win and was handing out bear-hugs to friendly hacks post-match.

In the opposite direction, Clint Dempsey was only a substitute against his former club, and was booed for his troubles. Mousa Dembele did not receive the yah boo treatment, most probably because, unlike Dempsey, he did not refuse to play for the Cottagers before his transfer happened.

After the glory, glory Tottenham Hotspur who defeated Arsenal and Inter, fans were subdued. Misguided passing generated exasperation. Bale's header from a corner and Sascha Riether heading off the line was the best it got in the first half. A lack of fluidity was apparent, and the sight of Aaron Lennon in civvies revealed a huge part of the problem.

Gylfi Sigurdsson's instinct is to cut infield, and his influence was not a sufficient replacement for Lennon's directness. A first half of barren creativity was summed up when Bale finally got the chance to shoot at Mark Schwarzer. At Upton Park a month ago, the net billowed. Here, the Park Lane end was called upon for a spot of impromptu volleyball.

Emmanuel Adebayor, the San Siro saviour, could not be trusted. Aimless movement, some fresh-air finishing and the threat that he might get himself sent off ought to suggest that a decent striker should be at the top of Spurs' shopping list this summer. The lack of options up front might well cost them this term.

In the 90th minute, Defoe's shot from Bale's burst might have been an equaliser that Tottenham hardly deserved, but Schwarzer blocked.

Jol's delight has given Spurs a fright, and a familiar one too - Arsenal, four points behind, are looming. "Merit to them for getting back into it," Villas-Boas said. "The situation has shifted, and they are in with a chance."

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