x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Harry Redknapp's title talk stutters at business end for Spurs

Tottenham are faltering in their charge for the Premier League title for a successive season, highlighted by the containment job at Chelsea.

Emmanuel Adebayor, centre, the Tottenham striker, is sandwiched out by Chelsea duo Ramires, left, and Gary Cahill, who was a transfer target for Spurs last summer.
Emmanuel Adebayor, centre, the Tottenham striker, is sandwiched out by Chelsea duo Ramires, left, and Gary Cahill, who was a transfer target for Spurs last summer.

This was attritional, conservative, percentages football from a manager sensing it all draining away from him.

For two seasons running, Harry Redknapp has talked up his sometimes thrilling team as title contenders. For two seasons running, Tottenham Hotspur have been found wanting in the breakdown, stumbling down the Premier League table when results really count.

It is not often mentioned in those repetitive eulogies of his candidacy as England national team manager, but last year Redknapp turned his verbal title challenge into a failure to finish in the top four. With a Uefa Champions League place on the line again here, he locked away the attacking elan to keep Chelsea at arms' length.

Without a league win since early February, Tottenham targeted the nil-nil draw from the kick off. Redknapp sent his team out to mirror Chelsea's default formation, stationing Scott Parker as a holding midfielder with Sandro and Luka Modric ahead of him.

Often used behind his centre-forward in this campaign, Gareth Bale and Rafael van der Vaart were pushed away to the wings as much to check Chelsea's full-backs as to stretch them.

For long periods the visitors kept bodies back in their own half, often wasting counter-attacking situations by failing to offer support. Their only first-half threat arrived in its final minute: Modric crossing for Van der Vaart to have close-range strikes blocked by Petr Cech, then Ashley Cole.

Redknapp knew the longer the score remained level, the greater the pressure on Roberto Di Matteo to open up and chase the win. Though Chelsea's energies have been refocused since the Italian took caretaker control from Andre Villas-Boas, a narrow midweek loss at Manchester City left them five points behind Tottenham, in fifth place.

Their final eight fixtures are more challenging than are Tottenham's. They needed to narrow the gap with victory here.

Two marginal penalty claims - when William Gallas bundled into Frank Lampard and Benoit Assou-Ekotto tugged back Ramires - went Tottenham's way. As did a beautifully taken Juan Mata free kick which curled well away from Brad Friedel, only to bounce back off the inside of an upright.

Long balls between an unstable centre-back pairing of Gallas and Younes Kaboul kept promising the critical goal for Chelsea without actually delivering.

In contrast to Gallas and Kaboul, Gary Cahill was a rock for Chelsea and he built on his goal scoring performance against Manchester City in midweek to make a remarkable recovery; his interception yesterday prevented Emmanuel Adebayor from scoring what would have been a certain winner.

That Redknapp came so close to signing Cahill last summer would only have added to his sense of frustration.

It is no coincidence that Redknapp's most impressive league campaign as Tottenham manager came in 2009/10, when his team were unburdened by European competition, and he clearly would rather not have been involved in this season's Europa League.

Redknapp's training is old school: non-technical, non-fitness-oriented and often comprised of 11-versus-11 sessions. Over the course of a league campaign it lets his teams down.

Yesterday's performance was enough to retain Tottenham's cushion over Chelsea, who are a diminishing force. Yet it allowed Arsenal to tighten their grip on third place and the direct route into the Champions League.

That may not matter to Redknapp if he is promoted to England manager. It will, though, make it all the harder for Tottenham to recruit his replacement.