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Oct 19, 2008

Spurs continue to sink

Stoke City 2 - 1 Tottenham Hotspur

The dreams were of the Champions League. The reality may encompass the Championship. A double UEFA Cup winner was recruited to make them a major force on the continent. Now Europe is required to provide some respite from their domestic troubles. Tottenham aspire to excellence, but they have achieved a depressing mediocrity. So when the chant of "that's why you're going down" was aired at the Britannia Stadium, Stoke City were not the recipients. But one phrase was heard more frequently. "You're getting sacked in the morning," Juande Ramos was repeatedly told, to great relish. He might not be, but the facts are damning. This was the first bona fide relegation six-pointer of the season and Tottenham Hotspur lost it. They are on their worst start in their history, five points adrift of safety and, ridiculously but deservedly, 15 behind Hull. They finished with nine men, which was an indictment of an imploding club. Stoke merit credit, but Tottenham have a self-destructive streak.

There was a predictability that Spurs would be ill-equipped to cope with Stoke's bruising physicality. Theirs was an inadequate response, typified by Michael Dawson's dreadful injury-time lunge on Mamady Sidibe. Much as the substitute moaned, Lee Mason's decision to dismiss him was correct. Dawson faces a three-match ban which, as Vedran Corluka was stretchered off and taken to hospital and Ledley King is rarely fit, means centre-back certainly ranks among Tottenham's problem positions.

There are others. When the left flank, for much of the match, comprises of Didier Zokora and Aaron Lennon, it is one indication of chaos. When the club only owns two senior strikers and they, according to the assistant manager, cannot play together, it is another sign of serious problems.

"I am worried about it. I don't like the situation," said Ramos. "This is my job and I am working very hard to finish the season. All the people in the club are responsible, if we win or lose." And will he stay? "This question is for the chairman," replied the manager, which was less than a resounding "yes".

Some backing came from his Stoke counterpart. "We all lie in the same bed. We all know the rules. We have to accept that if results aren't going well, you're under pressure. There is no hiding the fact they're in trouble. The manager [Martin Jol] they got rid of last year was popular. I hope the board of directors back him."

His judgment of Tottenham's squad was: "The players are definitely good enough. They've certainly got the players and the depth of squad to get out of it."

Indeed, in terms of the talent at their disposal, Tottenham are too good to go down. Yet coherence, organisation, teamwork and balance are required, and Spurs fail on all four counts. Moreover, their gifted players continue to underachieve.

Whatever the inverse of alchemy is, Tottenham may have mastered it. David Bentley's transformation from influential to ineffectual continues apace; Corluka is yet to produce his Manchester City form; the genuinely promising Gareth Bale's cameo today was memorable for the wrong reasons and the other dismissed man, Dawson, has regressed alarmingly.

Both sendings-off were eminently avoidable. For the first, Bale was dispossessed by Tom Soares. The left-back reacted by fouling the winger, whose energetic display vindicated his choice for a full debut. Referee Mason dismissed Bale and at a predictably windswept Britannia Stadium, Danny Higginbotham converted the resulting penalty after the ball was blown off the spot four times. Tottenham soon levelled, in rather fortunate fashion, through the offside Darren Bent, but they could not grasp the lifeline. Others have been defeated by Rory Delap's long throws. His shooting tends to induce rather less panic, but it was a four-yard side-foot, rather than a 40-yard hurl, that saw off Spurs. Sidibe, known for his awkward frame and considerable muscle, also confounded expectations with a precise cross that Delap arrived to convert.

This was the set-piece specialist becoming the match-winner in open play. Indeed, Pulis' brand of football is the antithesis of the Tottenham ethos. But whereas the Stoke manager takes great pride in his team's dead-ball prowess, Jermaine Jenas' free kicks were unremittingly awful.

And Stoke, in their own way, were effective. Pulis has never been confused with Johan Cruyff. Total football it is not. Yet there can be a certain edge-of-the-seat quality to their football. There can be a primal thrill, even if it is not to refined tastes. This made for compelling viewing, especially in the 11 minutes of injury time when Stoke hit the woodwork on four occasions. Three came in quick succession, Ricardo Fuller striking both posts with a penalty and Rory Delap hitting the bar with the rebound after Jonathan Woodgate fouled Soares. Then Fuller, with a rasping drive that rattled the bar, completed a hat-trick of sorts. Dawson's dismissal followed as Tottenham's agony was prolonged.

They ended with a revolutionary 3-2-1-2 formation and a member of the Russian parliament in attack. Roman Pavlyuchenko managed to get elected during the international break. The White Hart Lane constituency have a right to be dissatisfied with their representatives. And right now Ramos, Damien Comolli and the underachieving players may all lose a vote of no confidence.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Rory Delap - If Delap did not have the longest throw since Jan Zelezny retired, the chances are he would not be in the Stoke side. Yet his contribution, besides the winning goal and the inevitable 40-yard missiles aimed at the Spurs goal, was considerable. He tracked back diligently, combined well with the left-back Higginbotham and played with discipline and energy.

STOKE VERDICT: They remain in the relegation zone and may well end the season there. But few teams will find them accommodating opponents and victories over Stoke have to be earned. Their distribution remains poor - and it took them too long to exploit a one-man advantage - but their muscle and game-plan means the Britannia Stadium is an intimidating venue for opponents.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: They seem no nearer to discovering a winning formula. Defensive difficulties persist and the balance of the side further forward remains an issue. Luka Modric's passing was one plus, especially in the period between Bale's exit and half-time, but there were few other signs that Ramos knows his strongest side.

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