Tottenham 1 Sheff Utd 0: Three talking points
Harry Reardon on the Capital One Cup clash at White Hart Lane
Sheffield United put in yet another fine cup performance
For a team in the semi-finals of the League Cup, having lost only two of 19 cup games under Nigel Clough, to see Sheffield United sitting outside the League One play-off places is odd. What explains the difference in their league and cup records? It has been suggested from some quarters that they are good at containing better sides and then hitting them on the break, and that they struggle as the bigger fish in the lower levels. On the other hand, there were Jose Baxter’s comments in the build-up to this game, which suggested more traditional, earthy values. “There’s a lot of ‘matey-matey’ in the Premier League,” he said. “They’re nice, they don’t want to get kicked and they’re all great, technical players. It’s just when they come to play us and we give them a few kicks, they don’t like it.” So what did we see tonight? Certainly more of the former. Their passing was neat, their running direct and their high press would have been precisely what Mauricio Pochettino would have asked of his own players. Of the Blades’ Premier League scalps this season, their victory over QPR in the FA Cup a couple of weeks ago came against half a team putting in perhaps a third of an effort, while West Ham (fielding their own second string) were only dispatched after all but one of 23 Hammers shots had been repelled and an own goal had taken the game to penalties. Granted, the win over Southampton which earned them this semi-final was highly impressive, but even that came against a team coming off four league defeats in a row. Tonight may have ended in defeat, but this was arguably their best result.
Can Spurs defy the problems of fixture congestion?
If January is traditionally a popular month among divorce lawyers, things might be about to get especially busy with the frequent absences from home of north London’s husbands and wives. This was Tottenham’s sixth of nine games in January, and things are not due to get much better any time soon, with the Europa League set to resume next month and the prospect of FA Cup progress to set alongside a potential League Cup final. Spurs manager Pochettino has, however, earned himself a lot of credit, and his team a significant number of points, through the superior fitness levels which have brought three last-gasp winners from Christian Eriksen alone in the Premier League this season. And fixture congestion or no fixture congestion, his pre-match comments for this game promised more of the same. “We need to be focused on our game and play with intensity, high level and high tempo,” he said, noting the Blades’ aggression and physicality from their victories over Southampton and QPR. Selection tonight suggested some degree of rotation – Michel Vorm, Eric Dier, Ben Davies and Emmanuel Adebayor have, for various reasons, not featured much in recent weeks – but this was a strong line-up; and in their 36th game of the season (although it should be noted that Sheffield United have played the same number of fixtures), there were still no real signs of tiredness. Spurs picked off Sheffield United a bit earlier than they have Premier League opponents of late; this group continues to show signs that it can last the pace.
Winning goal illustrates the difference between the teams
The kick-off in this game was put back by 15 minutes after Sheffield United’s bus arrived late, reports suggesting that it had taken an hour-and-a-half to travel the five miles from their hotel. They spent most of the game thereafter looking to make up for lost time. The visitors were on the front foot quite literally from the kick-off, harrying, chasing and attacking such as to entirely belie their lower-league status. While the Blades were pacy and direct, it was Spurs looking for the longer balls in the opening stages, the Premier League outfit whose passes were going astray. But things slowly changed after the break. Eight of Spurs’ nine League Cup goals before tonight had come in the second half of games, and there was a noticeable shift up in gears from the Lilywhites after half time. Sheffield United, meanwhile, tired, and the goal was a perfect illustration of the difference between the sides. For all his struggles, Roberto Soldado is a high-quality footballer, and it was an excellent piece of control which put Jay McEveley under pressure; but one suspects that McEveley’s lapse in concentration such as to flap an arm at the ball would not have been seen at the other end. Townsend’s penalty was well-struck; Howard’s attempt to save it was a fine effort, but not quite enough. That summed it all up.