Friday, 8 April 2011

Stoke - between a rock and a hard place

Spurs charged at the Champions League like a drunk in a fight. We went in swinging and seemed blissfully unaware of any possible damage coming the other way, or, perhaps, were simply unable to defend ourselves. It was fun. Crowds gathered and cheered the flailing newcomer.

On Tuesday, we sobered up and ran straight into the hard right hand of a heavyweight champion. It was horribly jarring. We saw stars. Some of them scored against us. And Crouch’s sending off shouldn’t mask the fact that we’d have been all but knocked out anyway.

What we need to do now, of course, is clear our heads and somehow get back in the race for fourth. This time last year we lost an FA Cup semi-final to Portsmouth – a defeat that, in a very different way, was as traumatic as this week’s. After that, however, we went on a bit of a run and then won at Eastlands.

Same again would be nice, starting on Saturday with Stoke.

It’s a decent fixture to face. A bread and butter fixture. Only without the butter. If any team will bring you down to earth it’s Stoke – ironic, really, considering how much time the ball spends in the air.

The trouble is, Tuesday night wasn’t just a bloody great tonking by a bloody great side, it was also part of our ongoing malaise.

We took the form that’s brought us three points against Blackpool, Wolves, West Ham and Wigan into the Bernabeu. That was never going to end well. At one point I simply thought it was never going to end.

Our striking problems are well documented and, statistically, scarcely credible.

Our defence has been weakened through injury (apart from in Alan Hutton’s case, where it’s been strengthened through injury).

Even our usually excellent midfield is jaded and misfiring.

Bale looks caught in the headlights of his own fame, Lennon is ill or unfit and clearly pissed off with how his withdrawal from Tuesday’s game was handled.

Van der Vaart is a shadow of the player that everyone initially regarded as the transfer coup of the year. Even our little genius, Modric, is struggling to sparkle.

So unless we pick ourselves off the floor in the sort of comeback that would look far-fetched in a Rocky movie, we won’t finish fourth. Which will make this summer and next season the most important period in our recent history.

We are currently caught in a strange limbo between mediocrity and success. Too good for one, not quite able to grasp the other. And what we do in that time, from May 2011 to May 2012, will determine whether we fall back down to where we were, or somehow haul ourselves up to the next level.

Which, in turn, means that after next week’s limp looking second leg, we will either never play Real Madrid again, or, next time we meet them it will be on (more) even terms. There will be no patronising from them and no giddy, grateful excitement from us. We may even give them a bloody nose. We may, just may, even have their manager.

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