It’s catch-up time in the Premier League for Tottenham and West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns. Saturday’s results mostly went in Spurs’ favour but can they take advantage of the chance to move within a point of Chelsea and reopen a gap on Everton and Arsenal in the race for a Champions League finish? Albion will be no pushover, although they are still looking for their first win of 2013 having not won since a 2 – 1 success at QPR on Boxing Day.
West Brom proved difficult opponents in the opening League match at White Hart Lane. They had started the season under new manager, Steve Clarke, with a home win over Liverpool (3 – 0) and were very well organised at Tottenham. They defended stoutly for an hour with goalkeeper, Ben Foster making a number of vital saves but the introduction of substitute Romelu Lukaku, changed the game. He unsettled the Tottenham defence with Jan Vertonghen making his debut, struggling against the pace and strength of his fellow Belgian. Benoit Assou-Ekotto put Spurs ahead with 15 minutes to play but a determined Albion battled away to score in the final minutes of a 1- 1 draw.
Albion’s seven home wins in the Premier League have included success over Everton and Chelsea. Their first home defeat was in mid-October against Manchester City, having won the opening four games at the Hawthorns. They then won their next two home games before a 1 – 0 loss to Stoke at the beginning of December was followed by four points in their next two home matches from a draw with West Ham and a 2 – 1 win over Norwich. In January they suffered two home defeats to Fulham, QPR in an FA Cup repay and a draw with Aston Villa. In midweek, Albion lost 2 – 1 to Everton at Goodison Park but against showed great fight after being two down at half-time although they have taken just one point in their last five Premier League games.
Lukaku is joint scorer with Shane Long on 9 goals. The ‘want-away’ Peter Odemwingie is next with 5 goals, although after his attempts to join Queen’s Park Rangers on the last day of January’s transfer window, he may sit out this match.
Albion’s success under Clarke is based on a very well disciplined team performance. Foster in goal is crucial to that and his absence from Roy Hodgson’s team in the final day of last season played it’s part as one of the twists in the story of Tottenham’s failure to qualify for the Champions League. His replacement, former Tottenham reserve Marton Fulop, gifted Arsenal three goals in a 3 – 2 defeat which saw Arsenal finish 3rd to Tottenham’s fourth. WBA have a nucleus of players with considerable League experience – Olsson and Gareth McAuley in central defence and Billy Jones at left back. James Morrison in midfield with Jerome Thomas, Chris Brunt and Graham Dorrans while Long supports Lukaku in attack.
Andre Villas-Boas on the club web-site spoke of looking for Tottenham to make a fast start against Albion, something which has been missing in Spurs’ recent performances and has seen them struggle to make an early impression on their opponents. Last weekend Leeds made the quick start and Spurs never got going while in midweek, Norwich were the better, quicker team throughout the first period and it was only after the interval that Spurs started to get into the game.
“We have to have a brighter start than the one we had at Norwich. We have to be in the faces of West Brom a bit more aggressively. We have to make a bright start with the same passion we showed in the second half at Norwich.”
The Tottenham team will probably show few changes from the game at Norwich. An area of concern for Villas-Boas, however, will be the performance of the defence in the past two matches. They will need to be prepared for another battle against the running and experience of Long and the strength of Lukaku. Leeds and Norwich put the defence under early pressure and they looked very uncertain in both matches. A strong performance from the back four is essential if Tottenham are going to take three points from their trip to the Hawthorns. Villas-Boas’ main decision may centre on whether Clint Dempsey or Lewis Holtby starts the match. I would expect the manager to go with Dempsey and use Holtby later in the match. Spurs will look to Gareth Bale to provide their main threat and inspiration while they will hope that Jermain Defoe can get his first goal of 2013.
On so many occasions Tottenham have been in a similar position to the one they are in against West Brom – playing with an opportunity to strengthen their position, their opponents having dropped points in earlier matches. Too frequently, Spurs have failed to take advantage of the situation but hopefully, they will grab it today and move to within a point of Chelsea, knowing that they face a number of crucial matches in the next few weeks.