Twenty minutes of brilliance, 70+ minutes of OMG-AGGLE-BLAGGLE-ARRGH. That pretty concisely summed up Wednesday's match between Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool at White Hart Lane.
Missing Adebayor for the second of his three-game suspension for getting sent off against Arsenal, Spurs opened the game in the expected 4-2-3-1 with Clint Dempsey in the hole behind Jermain Defoe, and a midfield pairing of Sandro and Dembele. William Gallas, filling in last minute for an ill Steven Caulker, paired with Dawson in the back line, with Vertonghen again pushed wide left.
Spurs started off incisive and attacking, and it produced almost immediate results, with Aaron Lennon poking in a beautiful cross from Gareth Bale in the 8th minute. Bale also showed why he's turning into one of the most underrated free kick specialists in the EPL after he sent Pepe Reina the wrong way and rifled in a rocket of a shot from 30 yards out to make the score 2-0 after 15 minutes.
The action was frenetic in the opening 30 minutes, with both clubs getting the ball forward and creating chances on goal. The difference: Tottenham actually converted their chances. Liverpool didn't. Spurs' passing was incisive, on target, and well-conceived. In that first half hour, they looked very, very good.
On the flip side, Spurs looked very shaky at times at the back. William Gallas again looked a step slow in this game and made at least two major mistakes in the back, both that nearly resulted in goals for Liverpool. Time and time again, Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling were able to get past Gallas and in towards goal. Dawson also didn't put in his best performance in a Spurs shirt by a long shot. A monster game from Hugo Lloris and able cover for Old Man Gallas from Kyle Walker and Jan Vertongen meant that our patchwork center-back pairing was able to weather the storm, albeit barely. And only the ineptitude of Jordan Henderson and Suarez, who both missed easy chances, prevented Liverpool from pulling back a goal in the first half.
Liverpool clearly smelled blood and spent the remainder of the first half and the whole of the second half pushing forward, sensing a goal was imminent. Defensive miscues nearly caused another Liverpool goal in the 36th minute after a lapse by Dembele led to a fantastic clearance off the line by Kyle Walker. Liverpool finally nicked a fortunate goal in the 72nd minute off an Aaron Lennon own-goal that went in off of Gareth Bale's face, and the game was on.
With their only target the 5' 7" Jermain Defoe, Spurs were rarely able to get an adequate counter-attack off of Liverpool, and as a result needed to soak up massive amounts of pressure. Liverpool's tendency toward fouling offensive players also effectively broke up Spurs' counter-attacking momentum. Regardless, Spurs' defense did just enough to scrape out a 2-1 victory, much like that game up at Old Trafford, though they should feel fortunate to come away with the three points and Liverpool perhaps should feel a little hard-done.
This was a match where Spurs clearly missed the hold-up play of Emmanuel Adebayor. Liverpool was quite clearly the better team for the last 70 minutes of the game, and kept pushing the ball forward, while Spurs kept drifting further and further back. Dempsey was more or less anonymous today, though he did a fair job dragging Liverpool defenders out of position early on. With Ade up top, or in a 4-4-2 with Defoe on his shoulder, one wonders if Spurs might have cruised to victory today instead of hanging on by the skin of their teeth.
The Dawson-Gallas pairing did very little to assuage any fears we might have had about Spurs' defensive line, although Kyle Walker had a very good game, and Jan Vertonghen played capably out wide left. Mousa Dembele started his first match since his injury, and while he looked completely spent by the time he was subbed off for Tom Huddlestone late in the game, his passing was very good and he showed why Spurs play so much better when he's in the side. And finally, Hugo Lloris was a monster in this game, coming off his line to snag wayward balls and making a few fantastic saves over the course of the match. He's clearly Spurs' No. 1 keeper now, and I believe the debate between him and Friedel is officially settled.
It was an ugly, grinding, nail-biting win, but it's still a win. Spurs get the three points today, and after the horror show of the past two weeks now find themselves back in fifth place in the EPL table. A game Saturday at Craven Cottage vs. Fulham now looms large as a fantastic opportunity to wheel off three wins in a row and get Tottenham Hotspur back in contention for a Champion's League spot. Which is what it's all about, right?