March 3, 2015
Wembley Woes or an Arch of Ambition?
As Field Marshal Pochettino sent his troops off to the front line on Sunday (apologies, I couldn’t resist continuing my military analogy that I began on this week’s Fighting Cock podcast!) my optimism concealed a fear that we would be up against a wounded José Mourinho who would eke out a victory in whatever manner he could. My preferred team selection was identical to the team Mauricio Pochettino opted for, and a bursting hopefulness surged through me as the players took to the pitch.
But Mourinho’s vengeful cynicism was translated to his team and from early in the match they broke up play with tactical fouls – stopping moves before they had started – whilst drawing cheap free-kicks themselves from our players, waiting for the slightest contact before collapsing to the turf. Some of our players showed a fair amount of naivety and walked into this trap, giving Chelsea precisely what they wanted.
Of course, it wasn’t just a cynical Chelsea performance – it was a truly commendable defensive display in a season where Premier League defending has been oft-criticised. John Terry (*spits*) was dominant, ably assisted by Gary Cahill, and Kurt Zouma did a fine job as an auxiliary midfield player. Our wide players rarely got the better of César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović, and Chelsea kept us at arm’s length for most of the game.
But things could have been different. Spurs dominated the first half, playing some neat football and controlling the tempo of the match. Nabil Bentaleb was at his suave best, with Ryan Mason a bundle of industry and (attempted) invention beside him. With little help from the band of players behind him, Harry Kane was forced to drop deep to try to create for himself. On one such occasion, he drove through a clutch of defenders and won a free-kick. Christian Eriksen – so vital a player for much of the season, but recently suffering from #formloss – curled a beautiful free-kick over the wall, but it left the crossbar shaking with Petr Čech seemingly beaten by the pace of the attempt.
Chelsea scored at just the right time – a scruffy goal from a Spurs perspective – and went in at the break to receive instructions on how to shut up shop. Mourinho masterminded the second half to perfection, and it was Chelsea who looked most likely to score again, looking a genuine threat on the counter. It was somewhat inevitable that they got their second but, once again, it came via a deflection, which was unfortunate for Spurs and Kyle Walker in particular.
It wasn’t just Chelsea who showed defensive resilience, and I want to take a moment to praise Eric Dier who, for me, was our best player. At just 21, and in his first season in the Premier League, he put in an outstanding performance. Diego Costa is a pig of a player. All elbows and mouth, he tries to get under the skin of his opponent from early on, doing anything he can to gain an advantage. Dier was calm and dealt with him consistently well. Costa eventually got the better of us for the second goal, but he needed a big stroke of luck to do so – he’d been kept quiet for the rest of the game. This performance from Dier – with many eyes on him – should be enough to ensure that he starts at centre-back for England in the UEFA European Under-21 Championship in the Czech Republic this summer, an experience that will undoubtedly aid his development.
I left Wembley with a real sense of pride. Pride in our young team’s performance, and pride in our fans too. Post-match, Pochettino was keen to point out just how young the team was. He said: “The average age for my players was 23 and a half and for many players it was their first time at Wembley. It’s true that we will play a lot of finals in the next few years. I think we have a big future.”
Our fans were also fantastic, and out-sung our Chelsea counterparts for most of the match. It was a genuine delight when, after the opening Chelsea goal went in, a burst of ‘Everywhere we go…’ started up in my block.
My trip to Florence was an experience. Florence is a beautiful city, with beautiful food and, fortunately for us, beautiful weather, particularly on the Friday. But, despite good backing for our team in a tough match, it didn’t click on the pitch, and not all of the players’ efforts matched up to those of our supporters.
On arriving in Florence, it would have been rude not to order pizza for lunch. I went for the ‘Fiorentina’, which the waiter found amusing. After a couple of beers and a quick stop at our B&B, we headed off to the stadium.
Pre-match, my friend and I had agreed to record interviews for Spurs TV (23:10 here), meaning that we were at the Stadio Artemio Franchi for 16:45, over two hours prior to kick off.
After the interview was finished, we began walking around to where we presumed we could enter the ground. We drew plenty of stares from Fiorentina fans, so we kept our mouths shut and hid our colours. As we approached the last block before a dividing fence, we realised that we were probably going to have to walk all the way back around the stadium – a steward confirmed as much. But after thirty minutes of walking back on ourselves, we met a bunch of Spurs fans walking towards us saying that there was no obvious way in around the other side either. We continued regardless and eventually came to a row of police officers, blocking off an entrance-way. We flashed our tickets, and walked through. Already the police vans were arriving behind them.
We passed through two layers of security, and received two very thorough security checks (!) and entered the stadium. The first impression was that it was basic. The toilets were underground and pretty disgusting. There was no roof on our stand, and it felt “industrial”. Spurs had two sections, but there was a large sheet of Perspex between us, meaning that the atmosphere suffered throughout. We were so high in the stand that the strong wind became a factor, and we were freezing after a few minutes of being there. A small group of our fans stood on a concrete area to the front of the right-hand section and were noisy throughout, some not even stopping to look at the game! Unfortunately, because they were so far below us, the noise didn’t always carry and so the atmosphere felt sporadic and diluted.
The game itself was a crushing disappointment. I could understand the team selection, but would personally have played Harry Kane for the first sixty minutes. In spite of that, it felt like we were in control until Fazio’s sloppy pass led to the opener. Whilst this changed little in terms of what we needed to do in the match – we always needed to score at least once – it gave Fiorentina heart, and seemed to make us more desperate; we lost the sense of calm that we’d had prior to the goal.
Benji Stambouli and Ben Davies had good first halves, but rustiness and a lack of sharpness showed in the second, and Davies in particular had a tough time up against Mohamed Salah, who had switched sides. Eriksen had some flashes of good play, but was dispossessed five times – he was hindered by not having Kane to dovetail with. Roberto Soldado cut a troubled figure. The missed opportunity – where he tried to find Nacer Chadli – was obviously a huge error, but it was his lack of movement and effort that was particularly striking. Or not striking, that was the issue. He lacked desire and played like a man whose mind was elsewhere.
In the end we made it easy for Fiorentina to beat us – a real shame, especially since they’d changed shape at half-time in the first leg to make it difficult for us to beat them.
Post-match, we expected a twenty minute wait, as had been advertised. After fifty minutes of being penned in behind large metal gates, with rain coming down heavier and heavier, the gates were opened. As we left this area, we were confronted with riot police – shields and batons at the ready – and numerous police cars and vans were parked along our route. As we got to the entrance-way where the line of police had been stood on the way in, we were told to board buses bound for the city centre. Our B&B was nearer the stadium than the centre, so we ignored the instruction and continued through the barricade, and saw no trouble (and barely another football fan!). We had a good dinner in a restaurant in which Fiorentina fans were also dining, and any interaction was friendly and calm.
Florence is a beautiful city, and Spurs’ performance didn’t do it justice. But the competition has been good for us, and we might not have the Harry Kane that we do were it not for this season’s Europa League. I look forward to hopefully being in the competition again next season, but I would understand if Pochettino used it to give more young players a chance.