It would not somehow be Tottenham if they did not do things the hard way and this was evident as their Champions League qualification hopes were severely dented by the defeat at Sunderland.
Knowing that their next three Premier League games would be against the trio at the top of the table, Spurs knew how important taking three points away from the Stadium of Light would be. Having gained the upper hand in the race for fourth place in recent weeks, Harry Redknapp’s team had the chance to strengthen their position before their tough string of fixtures. Although the Black Cats have proved a difficult team to beat on their own patch, Tottenham came into the game on their best run of form all season but inexplicably never got going on Saturday. The scoreline was only 3-1 but could have been far more emphatic had ex-Spur Darren Bent been more ruthless from the penalty spot and Anton Ferdinand’s first goal in a Sunderland shirt not been wrongly ruled out. Admittedly, the first two out of the trio of penalties awarded to the hosts by Lee Mason were fairly harsh on the visitors, but they were not erroneous decisions. Kyle Walker’s hand was extended when the ball hit it for the first penalty, even if he knew little about it, whilst Luka Modric did not take any of the ball despite Fraizer Campbell going to ground without much persuasion. There could be no debates about the third spot kick, when Wilson Palacios took David Meyler’s legs away with the ball running out of play.
As good as Sunderland were, and they were rampant at times, Tottenham caused a lot of their own problems with some inept defensive work. It did not help that they entered the match shorn of their three best centre-backs and their first choice right-back, particularly as it left the relatively inexperienced Sebastien Bassong as the senior partner at the heart of the defence. Having mostly played alongside the imperious Ledley King or the ever-maturing Michael Dawson this season, Bassong has had plenty of help on the field to get through games and looked lost without the reassuring presence of a more-established colleague. Younes Kaboul has had little match practise in that position in recent times and it was always going to be a big ask for the two to gel quickly. The Black Cats’ strongest area of the field is in attack, with the free-scoring Bent and the energetic Campbell a handful for any centre-back pairing. The goal after 34 seconds hardly helped matters but could have been avoided if the Spurs defence had not been so static after Kieran Richardson’s corner led to Heurelho Gomes only parrying Campbell’s effort. There were five defenders in close proximity to Bent with only Jordan Henderson providing any distraction and yet not one of the five reacted as Bent pounced on the rebound. As natural a predator as the England international striker is, it was alarmingly slack defending by Tottenham and set the tone for the general performance.
This season, Tottenham’s defending has been much improved, as evident in their record of having conceded just 32 goals in 32 games. Of course, any side would be hit hard by the absence of players of the calibre of Dawson, King, Jonathan Woodgate and Vedran Corluka but this performance was inexcusable. But for two fine penalty saves by Gomes, Bent would have made the score five, and there was no foul by Campbell on Gomes as Ferdinand saw his strike ruled out. The gap between Bassong and left-back Benoit Assou-Ekotto was startling at times, a strange occurrence as the two have hardly been strangers this season. Redknapp could have gone with Gareth Bale in place of Assou-Ekotto rather than fielding him on the left of midfield but the defensive side of Bale’s game is not his strongest point so this would not necessarily have solved the problem.
With the best three attacks in the country providing the opposition for the next league fixtures, Redknapp knows his defence needs to raise its game immediately. Dawson should be fit to return which will be a huge fillip but Tottenham can not afford another defensive showing like this if they are to gain the results needed for fourth place. With Manchester City seemingly over their recent wobble and having overtaken Spurs at the weekend, the task has just got harder with time and games running out fast. The FA Cup semi-final against Portsmouth will offer the defence the chance to regroup against less-overwhelming opposition, but the biggest prize may just have slipped away after this defeat in a must-win game.