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Jan 27, 2009

Spurs finally get it right

It appears the penny has belatedly dropped for Tottenham's self obsessed superstars.

Having come within two minutes of a highly embarrassing humiliation in the Carling Cup semi-final at Burnley six days ago - so nearly surrendering a 4-1 first leg lead and only finding a winning goal in the 118th minute at Turf Moor - few in Harry Redknapp's dressing room were left in any doubt that they were a team with plenty to prove against Stoke.

They have long believed their talent would eventually ensure their position amid the relegation strugglers in the Premier League would be looked back upon as a temporary blip, yet facts were getting in the way of their fantasy as they starred into the abyss ahead of this six pointer against fellow strugglers Stoke. This was a game they dare not lose.

Even though they had won a pathetic total of five league games all year, manager Redknapp was alone in taking the threat of relegation seriously. The 'too good to go down' theory has kept spirits afloat at Tottenham's training ground in recent weeks, but defeat against Tony Pulis' men would have changed all that.

It was a prospect that clearly focused a few minds. From the moment Mike Riley blew his whistle for the first time in front of a sell-out White Hart Lane crowd, the prima donnas who had strutted their way to defeats against the likes of Wigan, West Bromwich Albion and Newcastle in recent weeks looked ready to put some flesh on their battered bones.

Redknapp has constantly bemoaned the lack of characters in his team over the last few weeks in a clear bid to try and rile his gifted players into life and now, at last, they emerged from their shell. While a woeful Stoke team may have helped Tottenham to paper over a few of their cracks, this performance showed what a touch of confidence could do to this Spurs side who merely need to find a balance between their desire to please and their desperate need to win games.

Well worked goals from Aaron Lennon, Jermain Defoe and Michael Dawson gave Tottenham the sort of half-time advantage they have not enjoyed for some time and the quality of their passing and movement was that of a top six side rather than a floundering struggler. It left you wondering where displays like this had been for the last six months.

David Bentley was among those on trial in this game. The ex-England winger has summed up the Tottenham dilemma this season. Natural ability is only useful if channelled appropriately, yet the self-publicist who cost this club some £15m to sign from Blackburn last summer has been a shining example of the frustrating mediocrity they have exuded.

You could be forgiven for believing Bentley would like to play his football in front of his own mirror as he looks admiringly at his each an every contribution, yet luxury players of his ilk are only useful if the end product and he has been searching for that week after week this season.

Footballers are often given an unflattering image by those of us who analyse the game from our comfy touchline seats, yet it seems the theory that Bentley is one of the game's most egotistical employees has rarely been dispelled by any who have come across him. Indeed, the man himself likes nothing better than celebrating his own 'brilliance' when a camera is thrust before him.

Sadly, his lack of end product has meant hat his overall appearance has been pretty ugly for much of the season and this was an evening when he needed to come to the party and dispel the theory that a bulk of Redknapp's criticism of recent times has been directed in Bentley's direction.

So when the star who once proclaimed himself to be more worthy of a place in the England team than a certain David Beckham started clattering into tackles and getting his white shirt muddy, the signs were good for Tottenham. His fancy flicks and pointless step-over moves were still in evidence, but Bentley was a constant threat down the flank in a much improved Spurs display.

The brilliant Modric was another obvious plus point for Tottenham with his twinkle toed performance lighting up the North London evening . The impressive first half display of Lennon and a comfortable debut for new keeper Carlo Cudicini will have pleased Redknapp, while Michael Dawson was again immense at the heart of the defence.

Stoke were pathetic for much of the opening period, yet Tottenham deserved plenty of credit for taking advantage as they have failed to dispatch opponents of this meagre quality time and again in this hugely disappointing season.

Most teams would fancy their chances with a 3-0 home advantage against a side who barely threatened unless they were gifted set-plays around the box, yet Redknapp's decision to switch Bentley to the left flank and Lennon to the right seemed to blunt the Tottenham attack and a moment of madness from Benoit Assou-Ekotto gave Stoke an unlikely route back into the game.

The French full-back inexplicably switched off in his own half as Stoke broke forward and by the time he realised he had abandoned his station, James Beattie had fired the visitors a lifeline. It was second rate defending from a player likely to be replaced by Pascal Chimbonda after his return to Spurs from Sunderland.

Tottenham goalkeeping coach Tony Parkes was among those berating his side's defending from his seat in the dug-out as they edged towards a victory that should have been so much more comfortable, but the points were more than welcome when the final whistle confirmed what had seemed inevitable for some time.

"I thought we were awful in the first half and lost the game in the first 25 minutes," said honest Stoke boss Tony Pulis. "There is no point in me trying to pretend were weren't rubbish as this was one of those days where I would accuse my players of not being at it, which is very disappointing for us.

"Modric ran the game and we didn't have the edge required to stop him. We tried to stop him in the second half, but he showed his quality and we just didn't have what was needed to keep him quite. We have 15 games to go and we have to think about those now."

Spurs boss Redknapp was equally complimentary of Modric's majestic display. "He is a world class player," he enthused. "He is strong as a lion and showed he could play in a 4-4-2 formation when the tackles were flying. I played with two wingers who can't defend and yet Modric held his own and flew into tackles from start to finish. What a player he is.

"Luka's performance summed up an improved display for us. Everyone put plenty into the game tonight and we were terrific in the first half. We could have been 6-0 up at the break, but we have to build on this now in what will be a tough game at Bolton on Saturday."

So Tottenham are clearly way too good to go down after all. David Bentley and his manicured pals will tell you they knew as much all along.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Luka Modric - Such was Tottenham's superiority for long periods that the little Croatian magician had the chance to show his class and he did that with some magical touches.

FOOD WATCH: A pre-match lasagne was complimented by a half-time chicken and mushroom pie. Aren't us press boys treated well!

THANKLESS TASK: The position of fourth official is a job reserved for the masochists of this world, but the poor soul charged with touchline duties for this game was even receiving abuse from members of the crowd. To attract his attention, they merely yelled "Fourth" at him!

TERRORIST ALERT: Soccernet's Insider had his car pulled over by police an hour before the game and he was asked to step out on anti-terrorist grounds. The officer told me that as Tottenham were a club associated with Israeli fans, they had to be wary of a threat posed by Palestinian sympathisers. With that in mind, I was not quite sure why they spent most of their time checking my tyres.

TRANSFER GOSSIP: Redknapp confirmed he is still hoping to sign another striker in the transfer window, yet Lyon striker Fred failed to turn up for a planned meeting on Tuesday. He admitted Robbie Keane is unlikely to return to Spurs.

TOTTENHAM VERDICT: Redknapp's team had reached a crossroads this evening and the manager must be relieved his players decided to take the right turning. One win has propelled them up the Premier League table and they are more than capable of finishing in the top eight if they continue to play like this. Slip back into their old lethargic ways and trouble could still lie ahead.

STOKE VERDICT: Other than the lively Beattie, Tony Pulis' men were hopeless. Put your money on the Potters returning to the Championship next season.

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