Club Focus – Tottenham – Tottenham stake their claim for fourth spot at Stoke

With rivals Liverpool and Aston Villa dropping points, Tottenham put the seal on a great weekend in their bid for fourth place with a battling win at Stoke.

It had been 25 years since Spurs had won away to the Potters, long before the Britannia Stadium was built. The winning goalscorer that day at the old Victoria Ground was the Stoke-born Garth Crooks, now better known as the excitable BBC pundit. A quarter of a century later, Niko Kranjcar grabbed the glory with a fine finish from Benoit Assou-Ekotto’s cut-back, but it was the performance of the whole team that earned all three points in what was always going to be a tricky fixture for Harry Redknapp’s side. With the FA Cup Quarter Final replay against Fulham just days away, Redknapp opted to leave out Wilson Palacios from an already depleted midfield. Palacios has nine yellow cards to his name this season, and one more before the second Sunday in April will earn him a two-game ban. Leaving the Honduran out of the Stoke game could be viewed as a sign that the Cup is the priority for Tottenham but it could also be read as Redknapp preferring the extra height of Younes Kaboul against the aerial threat of Stoke. How much Palacios will be used over the next few weeks remains to be seen, with a yellow card against either Portsmouth or Sunderland potentially ruling him out of the Arsenal game. Progress against the Cottagers would see the derby with the Gunners rescheduled for the following Wednesday, but a yellow against Pompey or the Black Cats would then mean he would miss the FA Cup Semi Final.

Kaboul put in an impressive shift in midfield, not only adding physicality and aerial ability alongside the silkier Luka Modric but also showing his crossing ability with some fine centres from the right flank. The Frenchman has not featured much since his January return to White Hart Lane, but when he has played, there have been signs of a new maturity that was not present in his first spell at the club. With Tom Huddlestone and Jermaine Jenas on the treatment table and Palacios walking a disciplinary tightrope, Kaboul’s performance at the Britannia may just have staked his claim for further outings in a midfield role over the coming weeks. With Vedran Corluka solid, if unspectacular, at right-back and Sebastien Bassong and Michael Dawson developing an understanding in central defence, Kaboul’s versatility will aid his chances of establishing himself as an important member of the first team squad. Palacios will still walk back in to the team when the risk of suspension is gone, but the potential is there to play Kaboul alongside him if a more defensive approach is required in midfield. Such a tactic is worth considering in the match with Arsenal, whose movement and passing demands more than one player to be used to combat it.

The performance against the Potters was hardly vintage fare but every member of the side did what was needed to grind out the victory. Heurelho Gomes was not at his steadiest in goal but he made sure he got enough on the ball each time he came to punch or palm the ball away. Bassong and Dawson propelled the threat offered from Rory Delap’s long throws and Matty Etherington’s free kicks, and were ably assisted by Peter Crouch who used his height to good advantage in his own penalty area. Gareth Bale was again a threat down the left flank, occasionally popping up on the right as he, Modric and Kranjcar demonstrated the fluidity that the Spurs midfield enjoys. Potters boss Tony Pulis laid the blame for his team’s defeat on referee Mike Dean, even revealing that his club had written to the authorities in midweek to complain about Dean’s performances in Stoke games this season. Pulis was unhappy with the decision to send Dean Whitehead off for two yellow cards, arguing that similar challenges by Tottenham went unpunished in the first half. That may be, but Whitehead warranted his marching orders and Dean was hardly biased against the home side when awarding them a penalty for an Assou-Ekotto challenge on Dave Kitson. Whatever Pulis’ thoughts on the officials, Spurs earned their win and will take great heart from winning a tough match.

Both Redknapp and Eidur Gudjohnsen, who scored his first goal for the club, have hailed the importance of the victory. Consecutive games against the top three in the Premier League are just weeks away but it is these games against solid mid-table clubs that will be the key to finishing fourth. Few teams come away with all three points from Manchester United, Arsenal or Chelsea and it is encouraging to see Spurs pick up a victory at Stoke, a place where Villa, Liverpool and Manchester City all failed to win.

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