In football, very few feelings eclipse those of an unexpected, stunning late equaliser. Derby victories are special, commanding, easy victories are enjoyable, even red cards for players who are roundly despised can incite a reaction from a crowd that eclipses what you’d get from a goal being scored. But few, if anything at all, beats the jolt of ecstasy and jubilation felt when your team, looking unlikely to score, snatch one at the death. Last night, Tottenham Hotspur fans, staring elimination in the eyeballs against a Lyon side who’d parked not so much a bus, but parked an army of buses in front of their goal, then were celebrating crazily into the night as Mousa Dembélé’s stunning 90th minute goal ensured a 1-1 draw on the night and a place in the last 16 of the Europa League against Inter Milan.
Over the years, Tottenham have been a fragile team, and not just when their players’ bowels resemble a war torn country after some dodgy lasagne. Defensive collapses have occurred regularly, late goals been conceded with alarming consistency, while mentally the team going behind, especially against the top sides, usually meant a defeat. Even under Harry Redknapp, when Spurs were as good as they’d been in twenty, thirty years, there was an instability about them that always gave opposing teams a chance.
Earlier this season, Spurs were worse than ever for displaying this sort of weakness. Late equalisers were given away at home to West Bromwich Albion and Norwich City, Manchester United huffed and puffed and were mighty unfortunate not to blow the Spurs house down when searching for another leveller at Old Trafford. The nadir came at Goodison Park, when a 1-0 lead with a minute of normal time to go turned into a 2-1 defeat.
That loss, as soul destroying as it was at the time, has sparked a run of form that has seen Tottenham in the league and in Europe go thirteen games unbeaten. In that time (thanks to the excellent @tickerscricket on Twitter for coming up with the numbers) Spurs have scored decisive goals in the 67th, 75th, 78th, 80th and thrice in the 90th minute of games. This run of late goalscoring in matches, after years and years of points being frittered away through panicky, haphazard defending against teams searching for late equalisers and winners, is an unexpected as it is delightful for the Spurs faithful.
The self-belief and team spirit Tottenham display is growing by the match. Late equalisers can do nothing but bring confidence into a team’s psyche, making clear to them they can be behind in games and still come back. In years prior, a Spurs team would see its collective shoulders slump when they went behind. This year, however bad the situation looks, they come back fighting.
The resilience needed to pull so many rabbits out of hats is immense. Yet Andre Villas-Boas, a manager criticised for his man management skills at Chelsea, has at Tottenham coaxed out of his players far more spirit and belief than Redknapp, a publicly feted man manager, ever did in his time at Spurs.
While scoring late goals that win points, cup ties and acclaim from fans and media alike shows a side’s battling abilities, not conceding them has to be remembered to. Since the Everton game, Spurs haven’t conceded any goal in any match after the hour mark. This is a remarkable turnaround, that again has Villas-Boas showing his talent as a coach. His remedy for Spurs’ propensity for collapses was at the end of training sessions, when the players were tired and wanting a basin rather than a football, to imitate late game situations and have the Spurs defending under pressure from opposition bombardment.
This has evidently worked, while the change in goal from Brad Friedel to Hugo Lloris has also been a huge help. Lloris’s superb command of the penalty area and speed off his line means he catches balls and sweeps up trouble that Friedel, who resolutely stays on his line, allows to fester. Spurs have conceded on average less than a goal a game since the events at Goodison Park in December, another tribute to their new found toughness and resilience.
The spirit and toughness Spurs are showing can do nothing but stand them in great stead for the rest of the season. In the league, their rivals Chelsea and Arsenal are having miserable seasons where bad results and even worse decisions have led to bitterness, squabbling and poor performances. Spurs may have tougher run-ins than both those clubs, but with the confidence they have currently and so many players (Parker, Dembélé, Walker, Defoe and others) to return to peak form and fitness, third place is eminently achievable, even second if Manchester City continue to blow up.
There is a joylessness about those clubs at the moment where Spurs are excited, optimistic, exultant even. Inter, Spurs’s next opponents, are themselves unhappy at the moment with the team in transition and head coach Andrea Stramaccioni, shades of Villas-Boas at Chelsea, is a young, inexperienced coach who may well soon be for the Inter managerial guillotine that has claimed Rafael Benitez, Leonardo, Gian Piero Gasperroni and Claudio Ranieri since the departure of Jose Mourinho in 2010. Spurs, with Gareth Bale returning to the ground where his legend started, will fancy their chances.