Tottenham 4 Anzhi Makhachkala 1: Four talking points
Tottenham 4 Anzhi Makhachkala 1: Four talking points as Spurs conclude their group-stage campaign in style
Soldado restores goal-scoring touch to give AVB a selection headache
If there was one spectator inside White Hart Lane that didn’t enjoy Roberto Soldado’s return to the scoreboard, it was Jermain Defoe, who was given the night off. The England international was probably wishing he was occupying the lone striker role instead of watching from the sidelines as Soldado re-established his goal-scoring prowess against a charitable Anzhi rearguard. Spurs signed the 28-year-old for a hefty £26m fee from Valencia in the summer and has done little to warrant such a substantial investment since then with only a handful of goals to show for the first half of the season. Consequently, he found himself frozen out over the past few games as Andre-Villas Boas deployed Defoe instead, in an attempt to solve Spurs’ goal-scoring deficiencies. However, this performance against the Russians hinted at a return to form after an absence from the starting line-up. Soldado showed all the qualities of a top striker by heading Spurs into an early lead before clinically sweeping home a second minutes later. He completed his hat-trick with an assured penalty before receiving a standing ovation from the home fans. With Liverpool the next visitors to the Lane on Sunday, AVB will face a selection dilemma. Although Spurs defeated Fulham and Sunderland in their last two games with Defoe leading the line, the England striker looked a shadow of his former self as he spurned several opportunities to open his league account for the campaign. After this showing, there would be no surprise if Soldado’s name appears on the team sheet for the visit of the Reds, at Defoe’s expense. It could just be the spark he needs.
Fall from grace for ‘Anzhi Project’
Twelve months ago, Anzhi had just defeated Liverpool before progressing to the last 16 of the Europa League as they threatened to become Russia’s footballing powerhouse thanks to the hefty investment of a local billionaire. An influx of big-name stars led by Brazilian duo Roberto Carlos and Willian highlighted their ambition while familiar faces such as Samuel Eto’o, Christopher Samba and Yuri Zhirkov were all recruited for big money. The appointment of Guus Hiddink as manager worked wonders as they emerged as the latest club to benefit from the millions, or billions in this case, of wealthy owners. However, everything has gone downhill since then. The ‘Anzhi project’ expanded rapidly but died twice as fast. None of the aforementioned names remain on the club’s roster with owner Suleyman Kerimov pulling his funding in favour of a more ‘manageable’ approach. That formula has resulted in Anzhi returning to their former glory, or lack of it, as they lie perilously close to the foot of the Russian Premier League. In Europe, they have managed to secure a spot in Monday’s draw but that is as much down to Group K’s uncompetitive nature and lack of quality. Although the visitors pulled one back before the break and looked threatening at times, this is a club playing in their final European campaign with time running out for Gadzhi Gadzhiyev before they return to footballing obscurity.
Europe’s second-tier competition offers Spurs realistic chance of silverware
It was in this very competition that Villas-Boas stepped out of the shadows of his former master and into the managerial limelight by leading Porto to the trophy in 2011. Consequently, there is no surprise that the Europa League – a tournament which is so often devalued and disrespected – remains close to his heart. Having being knocked out by Swiss outfit Basel in the quarter-finals last year, AVB is determined to change the attitudes of the White Hart Lane faithful towards a competition he holds dear and lead Tottenham to European glory. Having negotiated the group stage unbeaten and with minimal fuss, all eyes will be on Monday’s draw at Uefa headquarters in Nyon to find out the identity of their next opponents. The draw for the round of 32 also involves the eight sides that finished third in each of the Champions League groups with the four unseeded teams possible opponents for the North London club. However, Tottenham have little to worry about and should be targeting a lengthy run in a competition, which is likely to be their best chance of silverware this season. Nonetheless, three sides that they’ll be eager to avoid will be AVB’s former employers Porto, Ajax and Italian supremos Juventus, after they were all eliminated from the Champions League as unseeded sides because of their inferior points tallies. Even still, Spurs defeated traditionally strong continental clubs in Lyon, Lazio and Inter Milan on their way to the last eight last time around and won’t fear drawing anyone on Monday – after all, you have to beat the best at some stage if you want to lift the silverware.
Competition enters business end after tedious group stage
The uncompetitive nature of the group stage and poor quality of several of the 48 teams involved in the first-round yields a large amount of criticism and apathy. However, once the knock-out phase arrives, the interest levels and standard increases a notch or two. Some of the continent’s biggest names vye for the title with the competition experiencing vast development and an increase in value in recent years thanks to the involvement of clubs such as Chelsea, Inter Milan, Napoli, Ajax and Benfica to name just a few. The Europa League has been a happy hunting ground for Premier League clubs during the past decade or so. For example, last year Liverpool, Newcastle and Spurs led a strong English contingent in the knock-out stages as well as being joined by eventual winners, Chelsea, who dropped down from the Champions League. Although, there are only two Premier League representatives in this year’s draw – after Swansea narrowly scraped through – both will fancy a lengthy run in the knock-out stages with Tottenham surely targeting to go all the way and lift the trophy in Turin in May. Chelsea’s triumph in 2012-13 followed up strong showings by Fulham and Middlesborough among others in recent years with three of the eight quarter-finalists from last year coming from these shores. A favourable draw is beneficial, but there is no doubt that Swansea and indeed Tottenham can continue the Premier League’s impressive recent record in the Europa League in the coming months as we enter the business end of proceedings.