For Spurs supporters, matches like this evening’s – Real Madrid at the Estadio Santiago Bernabau – are, perhaps, what have been missing for all these years. Yet Spurs have cause for trepidation this evening. Their recent form has been that of a squad running out of steam, and Chelsea have been allowed to build up a five point cushion in fourth place over them in the Premier League. Even Spurs’ poor luck with injuries cannot entirely explain their successive Premier League draws against each of the bottom three in the table. Had they won each of these matches, they would still be in the top four but, as things stand, Champions League participation for next season is just starting – just starting – to slip from view on the horizon in terms of the Premier League. Tonight is not the ideal time for a trip to Madrid.
That Real Madrid, meanwhile, could be in the shadow of anything or anybody seems like an odd state of affairs, but the Barcelona love-in of the last couple of years or so has left them in a position of unfamiliar obscurity. Yet, here they are. A team that still contains Ronaldo, Casillas, Adebayor, Xabi Alonso and Ozil and is able to leave Kaka on the bench. They’re coached by Jose Mourinho, whose record in the Champions League doesn’t require any further comment. And tonight, there are 80,000 people in the Bernabau, one of most imposing football grounds in the world. Spurs may already have done it this season against both of the Milan giants, but there can be little question that they need to step up another level this evening if they are to stand any chance of progressing in this competition.
Just minutes from kick-off, there is a sudden change for Spurs when Aaron Lennon is taken ill and Jermaine Jenas is introduced in his place. It’s the first act in a trilogy of disasters which derails the tie before it has even had the opportunity to get into gear. Within the first couple of minutes, Ronaldo has checked the cross-hairs on his sights from distance and, after four minutes, the damn breaks. A corner comes over from the right and Adebayor, under a feeble challenge from Jenas, heads goal-wards. The ball squirts between Gomes and Luka Modric on the line and in. It’s another set-back, but it’s not a disaster – that follows nine minutes later. Peter Crouch has already been booked for one needless and ill-timed challenge. Another follows after thirteen minutes, a tackle reminscent of a broken combine harvester on a windy day, and Crouch’s evening is over. There are one hundred and sixty-seven minutes of the tie left to play.
For the next quarter of an hour, Real play with Spurs like a kitten toying with a wounded bird. Chances are few and far between, but with Crouch, one of the main outlets for any swift counter-attacking plans that they might have had, already in the shower and quite possibly wondering what the hell he was doing committing to tackles that he had next to no chance of getting the ball from, as much as the Spurs defence can manage is a mixture of failed attempts to play their way out of trouble or wildly over-optimistic punts down the pitch. For all of this, though, they do manage a couple of chances. A surprisingly quick throw into the Real penalty area finds Rafael Van Der Vaart momentarily unmarked and six yards from goal, but he reacts too slowly and his tame shot is comfortable for Iker Casillas. A couple of minutes later, the hitherto anonymous Gareth Bale cuts into the penalty area and shoots into the side-netting.
These, though, are isolated incidents. Real continue to press and seem profligate in their their desire to move into positions from which they cannot miss. Ramos’ diving header tees up Adebayor from a couple of yards out, but Adebayor misjudges and misses his header. Real have a convincing call for a penalty kick waved away when Michael Dawson charges a shot from Ozil down with his arm. Half-time comes with Spurs a goal down and, one rather suspects, not entirely disappointed with this outcome, all things considered. They have stabilised from a disastrous start and, although they have arguably given themselves enormous hurdles to climb, they are no worse off than they were at half-time against Young Boys or Internazionale.
Having got to half-time a mere goal behind, Harry Redknapp shuffles his pack, and Jermain Defoe is introduced for the largely ineffectual Rafael Van Der Vaart. Real Madrid, however, pitch up camp in the Spurs half and for the first five or six minutes of the half the visitors are largely chasing shadows. Yet for all this – and they are a delight to watch – Real seem unable to create the goal-scoring opportunities to kill the tie off. Indeed, the best chance of the first few minutes falls to, of all people, Benoît Assou-Ekotto, whose thirty yard shot from a half-cleared corner fizzes a yard or two wide of Casillas’ right-hand post. With twelve minutes of the half played, though, comes the hammer blow, and it is a goal that looks ridiculously easy. Cristiano Ronaldo rolls a short corner back to Marcelo and, with the Spurs defence still half-asleep, he crosses for Adebayor to loop a header over Gomes and in. An uphill battle now looks like a near-insurmountable mountain to climb.
What has become apparent with the second goal is that Spurs are utterly unable to cope with Adebayor in the air, and nine minutes after the second goal he almost adds a third, which brings a good save from Gomes. Spurs, though, are suffering the same fate as they did in the first half. Unable to keep possession for any meaningful period of time, they have long been in damage limitation territory but with eighteen minutes to play even this becomes a step too far. Angel Di Maria nicks the ball from Luka Modric – one of the common themes of the evening, that – and drives the ball over and around Gomes, sending the ball into the top corner of the net with the minimum of fuss.
The final minutes of the game tick away like an after-thought, but there is still time for an abject moment from the Spurs goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes with three minutes to play. Real have taken their foot off the pedal since the third goal, but Cristiano Ronaldo volleys from an angle and the ball squeezes through Gomes and in. It has been, for Tottenham Hotspur, that sort of evening. Outplayed and outclassed in every department, they were unable to breathe in the exalted, thin air of the Bernabau and this tie, barring some sort of miracle, is all but over with half of it left to play. The sending off of Peter Crouch with less than fifteen minutes played was a blow, as was the withdrawal of Aaron Lennon shortly before kick-off. These in themselves, though, were portents of what was to come and no more. Unable to cope with Adebayor and unable to keep possession for anything like a reasonable amount of time, they learned a harsh lesson this evening and the question for the rest of the season is now one of whether their Champions League adventure, one which has brought their supporters memories to last a lifetime, will prove to be a one-off.
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