Van der Vaart the gift that keeps on giving
Rafael van der Vaart is the gift that keeps on giving. When Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy bought the Dutchman from Real Madrid on the last day of the latest transfer window, he described the new playmaker as a "present" for manager Harry Redknapp -- and yesterday at White Hart Lane more than 35,000 fans again united in gratitude.
The £8m bargain crowned another sparkling performance with the two goals that enabled Spurs to come from behind and prevail in a pulsating contest. Unlike their hosts, Villa had not been in Champions League action in mid-week and they initially looked fresher, forcing Tottenham on to the back foot -- which is not a comfortable position for Spurs these days.
Tottenham's continuing injury problems forced Redknapp to select yet another new partnership in the heart of his defence, Sebastien Bassong and Tom Huddlestone forming the club's 10th central defensive duo of a campaign that is only 12 games old.
Villa put the improvised pairing through a disorienting test, with Ashley Young, Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing serving as tricky satellites unpredictably orbiting Emile Heskey. Heskey's power was the key ingredient in the opening goal on 16 minutes. The England rejector outmuscled Bassong on the right before stomping into the box and serving Albrighton on a silver platter. The youngster duly tapped into the net from three yards.
With Van der Vaart subdued early on, Villa were looking comfortable -- except for Heskey, who was unable to shake off the dead leg he suffered while creating the goal and had to be replaced by John Carew in the 35th minute. Downing offered the Norwegian an opportunity to mark his arrival but Carew blasted over.
With half-time approaching Tottenham suddenly raised their game. Van der Vaart, inevitably, was instrumental in their fightback. First he stung Brad Friedel's hands with a shot from 25 yards, then he sent a curler fractionally over from the edge of the area before, in the third minute of stoppage-time, the Dutchman made the breakthrough, heading into the net after Peter Crouch nodded a Pavlyuchenko cross into his path.
That was not enough to reassure Redknapp, who made a tactical switch at the break, replacing Pavlyuchenko with Aaron Lennon, who took up residence on the right to give Van der Vaart even more freedom to roam. "That gave us a bit more balance, we had been a bit too open in the first half," said Redknapp.
The switch bore fruit. Tottenham took charge of a contest that was hurtling along at a delightful clip, and in the 75th minute came up with the winner.
Lennon cut in from the right and chipped a cross towards Crouch, who headed across goal to Van der Vaart. The Dutchman outfoxed Richard Dunne with a deft feint, slamming the ball past Friedel from six yards. "When the ball goes up to Crouchy, Rafa's always around there looking for it, he's got a real knack for scoring," Redknapp said.
"Van der Vaart was outstanding," acknowledged Gerard Houllier, who also had plenty to impress him in his own team. "I was pleased with the performance but disappointed with the result," he said. "Funnily enough that as the best of my three games in charge. We developed good entertaining football, building from the back without skipping stations. I think a draw would have been a fairer result, and that's good because, to be honest, Tottenham are a slightly superior team to us."