x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A changing of the guard

Tottenham's ascent to the top four last term is mirrored by the decline of Liverpool.

Rafael van der Vaart, left, and Gareth Bale, have been Tottenham Hotspur’s standout performers so far this season as the club look to build on their fourth-place finish of the last campaign.
Rafael van der Vaart, left, and Gareth Bale, have been Tottenham Hotspur’s standout performers so far this season as the club look to build on their fourth-place finish of the last campaign.

For Rafa Benitez, it was the beginning of the end. For Harry Redknapp, it was the start of a career-defining achievement.

In the eventual analysis of the 2009/10 campaign, one of its first results ranked among the most significant. When Tottenham Hotspur defeated Liverpool 2-1 on the opening weekend of last season, it set the tone for a season when Spurs displaced the Merseysiders in the division's hierarchy and broke into the top four.

In the television studio, Glenn Hoddle, the former Tottenham manager, drew an unflattering comparison between Benitez's replacements and the Spurs substitutes. More damning, it was a view echoed in the Liverpool dressing room. Over the course of a campaign, a lack of strength in depth was a factor in their decline as they stumbled to seventh.

Fifteen months on, the rematch contains many of the same themes. Redknapp was able to introduce Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe from the bench in last week's dramatic derby win against Arsenal; Roy Hodgson has no such luxury.

The less-than-magnificent seven held in reserve by Benitez for last year's meeting - Diego Cavalieri, Daniel Ayala, Martin Kelly, Jay Spearing, Andrea Dossena, Andriy Voronin and Yossi Benayoun - form a weaker group than the probable substitutes today. But, minus Steven Gerrard, Liverpool's supporting cast face their perennial test: can they compensate for the absence of one of their elite?

Tottenham's dilemmas are different. Even with an extensive injury list, Redknapp regularly bemoans his inability to find Niko Kranjcar a place on the bench. His seven substitutes against Arsenal cost the best part of £70 million (Dh406m), Hodgson's replacements against West Ham United the same day less than £20m. Money talks, and Redknapp is invariably known for his eloquence in the transfer market.

Now sheer finances render Tottenham favourites, over the afternoon and over the course of the season. With reserves of quality, the reliance upon the premier performers is lessened. Liverpool have long objected to the tag of a two-man team, but it is not levelled at Redknapp's side, despite the brilliance of Gareth Bale and the Dutchman Rafael van der Vaart.

A shift in the balance of power from Liverpool to London predated Van der Vaart's arrival in England, but he seems to be cementing it. Hodgson's last battle with Spurs took place off the field but his victory now seems pyrrhic. Joe Cole rejected Redknapp, his manager at West Ham, to sign for Liverpool in the summer.

Spurs later sated their appetite for creativity by recruiting Van der Vaart. He has proved a revelation while the Englishman a cause of frustration. These days the chants saluting a man named Rafa are heard at White Hart Lane, not Anfield.

Van der Vaart was the architect of the season's greatest comeback, but it highlighted the contrasting approaches of today's opponents. Redknapp's cavalier attacking - and Van der Vaart's contribution of a goal and two assists - transformed a two-goal deficit into a 3-2 win at the Emirates Stadium last week.

Boldness comes more naturally to Redknapp than Hodgson. The Spurs manager talks up his team's chances of winning the title, his Liverpool counterpart, perhaps scarred by Benitez's infamous guarantee, is reluctant to suggest a top-four finish is possible. White Hart Lane's optimism is mirrored by Anfield's pessimism.

The statistics show very different flaws in the opponents. Spurs have a solitary clean sheet in the league - and that was on the opening day - and Liverpool just one away win. A costly caution on the road leads to examination of Hodgson: the accusation is that, lacking Redknapp's gambling instincts, his tactics are too negative to end Liverpool's travel sickness. Seven away games this season have brought only five points and have incorporated three abject displays, at Manchester City, Everton and Stoke City.

On each occasion, there has been no response to the concession of a goal. Spurs, in comparison, were a man and four goals down in the San Siro and nearly claimed a point against Benitez's Inter Milan. The very fact the fixture took place is a sign of changing times.

Even Liverpool's seemingly superior preparation - it is eight days since their last game, four days since Spurs' - is a consequence of Tottenham taking "their" place in the Champions League. It is time off that stems from relegation and rejection from the elite. And it began last August at White Hart Lane.

 

sports@thenational.ae

8pm, Abu Dhabi Sports 3 & 5

 

The match-up

Key Battle
Gareth Bale v Glen Johnson
Bale, the Tottenham wideman, drew comparisons to Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi after his recent displays against Inter Milan. Perhaps those pundits were getting a bit carried away, but he is one of the most exciting players in the league. Johnson is equally pacey and accomplished going forward, but has obvious defensive flaws.

Tactics
With club captain Steven Gerrard injured, expect Liverpool to put Fernando Torres up front on his own and adopt a cautious approach. Tottenham have shown they have the attacking might to trouble any team.

Previous meetings
Tottenham have won the past two league matches at White Hart Lane, both 2-1, yet prior to that Liverpool were unbeaten in four games. The side from Merseyside are well up in the all time head-to-head record, with 70 victories to Spurs’ 43.

Probable line-ups
Tottenham (4-4-2) Gomes; Hutton, Gallas, Kaboul, Assou-Ekotto; Van der Vaart, Modric, Palacios, Bale; Defoe, Crouch
Liverpool (4-5-1) Reina; Johnson, Carragher, Skrtel, Konchesky; Lucas, Meireles, Poulsen, Kuyt, Maxi; Torres

Facts

• Harry Redknapp, the Tottenham manager, has lost only once in his last 11 home matches against Liverpool. That was a 1-0 defeat with Portsmouth in 2006.
• Likewise, Liverpool’s manager Roy Hodgson has never won at White Hart Lane. He has two draws and two defeats with Blackburn Rovers and Fulham.