Thursday 29 September 2016

Spurs spurn opportunity to close gap on Leicester after Antonio's early strike

West Ham United 1-0 Tottenham

Jason Burt

Published 03/03/2016 | 02:30

West Ham manager Slaven Bilic fixes some tape on the back of match-winner Michail Antonio Photo: IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images
West Ham manager Slaven Bilic fixes some tape on the back of match-winner Michail Antonio Photo: IAN KINGTON/AFP/Getty Images
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino looks dejected Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth
Tottenham's Eric Dier tries to tackle West Ham's Dimitri Payet Photo: Reuters / Andrew Couldridge
Michail Antonio celebrates with Dimitri Payet after scoring the winning goal for West Ham Photo: Reuters / Stefan Wermuth

As birthdays go this was one to snuff out the candles and throw the cake in the bin for Mauricio Pochettino - 44 on the day - as Tottenham Hotspur fluffed the chance to go top of the Premier League at this stage of the season for the first time since March 1964. That is some anniversary to miss.

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West Ham were excellent and in this topsy-turvy, crazy campaign can now themselves even think seriously about a tilt at Champions League qualification. If they play like this then why not? They suddenly have fourth-placed Manchester City in their sights.

But how they will delight in - even if it is only temporary - bursting Spurs's bubble with this defeat also ending a run of six successive league victories for Pochettino's side. That was the icing on their cake last night.

The only relief for Spurs and their manager was that Manchester City and Arsenal also lost. And so this was undoubtedly a very good night also for league leaders Leicester City who feared they would be caught but now go into the weekend's fixtures with an advantage surprisingly stretched to three points instead.

Testing

Next up for Spurs is the north London derby at home to Arsenal on Saturday lunchtime. Their schedule, as it should be for a club of ambition, is testing and that test grew even harder here. Inside 10 minutes Spurs were behind.

The goal came from a corner, swung in by the West Ham poster boy Dimitri Payet, and met powerfully by Michail Antonio who directed an unerring header towards the near post which goalkeeper Hugo Lloris could not claw out before it hit the net. Antonio had, all too easily, evaded Nacer Chadli to reach the ball and although his celebrations were - marginally - more subdued than after his goal at the weekend against Sunderland the reaction from the home supporters was not. This was one they desperately wanted to win.

Once again, as in their weekend fixture against Swansea City, Spurs were behind with the question also whether Lloris could have done better. How would they react? Slaven Bilic, the West Ham manager, had rejigged his formation with three central defenders, Cheikhou Kouyate dropping back from midfield, and wing-backs with Antonio on the right of that formation.

Was that to combat Spurs or surprise them? West Ham had already achieved the latter. Bilic's tactics were working as they stretched their opponents.

History does not just beckon for Spurs. West Ham, too, have enjoyed an outstanding league campaign in their final season at Upton Park and the countdown clock before kick-off showed that it was now just 163 days before they move to the Olympic Stadium. How they would love to put the skids on Tottenham's title challenge in the last fixture between the two clubs at this historic old ground.

It was rattling again when Mark Noble almost doubled the advantage as he collected possession on the edge of the penalty area and drew a flying save from Lloris, who pushed the ball away, brushing it against the post.

There was a flickering threat for Spurs from Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela but the rest of the team appeared sluggish, struggling to compete with West Ham's tempo and aggression as they were driven forward by Noble.

The state of the pitch did not help, either. Spurs were being harried, rushed. Maybe they were sluggish also. They almost paid the price, once more, as Noble struck from distance with the ball rebounding back to him. The captain teed up Antonio who cut inside only for his goalbound shot to be blocked by Kevin Wimmer.

West Ham were rampant. Corners, free-kicks were won. Time and again Spurs were struggling to contain their directness and power. And pace. And the trickery of Payet as they were stretched all over the pitch and he forced another corner when his shot was deflected narrowly wide of Eric Dier. By now both Spurs centre-halves had been booked and Pochettino's team were desperately holding on for half-time without further damage being inflicted after, probably, their worst 45 minutes of the season so far.

Surely there would be a reaction now? And there was with Ben Davies miscuing a shot and Lamela misdirecting a header. Both should have done better as Spurs finally tried to seize the initiative before West Ham delivered a reminder with Aaron Cresswell's header bouncing into the turf and over.

Anger

Pochettino, frustration etched on his face, anger also, had seen enough. On came Dele Alli, who had not been risked from the start because of a foot injury, but Spurs desperately needed something. They almost received it with Toby Alderweireld's low drive from 25 yards which Adrian spilled. It fell to Harry Kane but he failed to connect properly, with Kouyate getting back for a vital touch. Even so it appeared Kane should have scored.

For West Ham, Antonio lifted Payet's dangerous free-kick over the bar as they threatened once more. It got worse for Kane as the ball ran through to him beyond the far post but it skimmed off his boot as he stretched. It was a difficult chance nonetheless. Spurs's sense of urgency became enveloping.

They held sway and pushed on with Pochettino prowling the touchline nervously. But they did not come close to saving this.

Telegraph.co.uk

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