“The draw I wanted,” declared Rafael van der Vaart, of Spurs’ Champions League quarter-final draw against his former club, Real Madrid.
While his gleeful hubris may have echoed around a room full of teammates sideways-glancing, praying the semi draw might offer some consolation – how that worked – it demonstrates two things:
1) He still has some mates at Real.
2) He knows no fear.
That fearlessness has been infectious, and there’s no underestimating the impact it’s had on our season.
Van der Vaart’s only been with us since September, when he wasn’t match-fit, and has picked up niggling injuries. I remember his hamstring going against Liverpool at the Lane. An over-hit ball to the left of Reina’s goal, still Rafa would not give up on it, tried to keep it in with a back-heel, momentum bundling him into an advertising hoarding. Desperate to chase a lost cause, among a team not unacquainted with lost-cause-chasing.
We’ve recouped 20 points from losing positions this season, not least the three at Arsenal.
Half time at the Emirates, 2-0 down. No Spurs side of recent years would have come back from that. A struggle more uphill than the gardening of gentlemen. Yet Van der Vaart sets up Bale for the first, wins the penalty from the free kick and scores from the spot for the second, then floats in the free kick from which Kaboul scores the winner. Revelatory comeback. Unlikely pandemonium. One man.
When Van der Vaart plays, no matter who else is missing, there’s a sense that anything is possible.
That’s the mark of him. No one made him captain, yet he’ll be the one with the bulging eyes and pumping fists, demanding passion from his teammates. He’s a lover (the embrace with that granny after scoring against Villa; unlike Rooney he didn’t ask for a number) and a fighter (the first to confront Flamini after his lunge at Corluka) with pitbull tendencies and a grin.
And Real didn’t want him!
Rumour had it that van der Vaart was being touted to Bayern for £18 million and so desperate were Real to offload him that Levy fixed the price at just £8 million, two hours before the transfer deadline. Bargain of the season by a country mile. Or by the distance between Bendtner’s actually ability and his own perception.
Twelve goals, seven assists (Martin Jol called Rafa, “One of the five best playmakers in Europe”). He’s our top goalscorer: one more than both Bale and Pav, three more than Crouch, eight more than Defoe. Left foot, right foot, head, he’s netted via all three, and there’s no one I’d rather see with the ball in front of goal. Presumably Harry agrees, as he takes the penalties.
When van der Vaart plays, no matter who else is missing, there’s a sense that anything is possible. It was his first goal – back-heel from Modric, shift into space – that started the rout and steadied the ship against Inter at the Lane.
If you’ll permit my Star Trek analogy – and I hate that nerdy shit – our midfield has been both the bridge and the engine room, with Scotty as Modric (chief engineer), Kirk as Bale (driving force/figurehead) and Uhura shagging Sulu (disturbingly sexy) as van der Vaart.
“If we play together for a few years we can become a great team," Rafa said recently. "Who knows, before retiring a lot can happen, but right now I'm in London and I hope that Tottenham want to keep me for many years."
A damn sight more than Real did, my fine Dutch friend. Let’s hope it backfires on them spectacularly.
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