Monday 19 February 2018

Blues saved by bargain goalkeeper

A scoreless draw might suggest that English football has decided to embrace a more cerebral approach to the game, but the reality was very different at White Hart Lane yesterday.

For 45 minutes, Manchester City remained in the game thanks, not to the spending of Sheikh Mansour, but to the excellence of a player who predates the petro-billions. Joe Hart.

Spurs' first-half pace was as frenetic as the Premier League demands and the most exciting of City's summer purchases, David Silva, was left bewildered for most of the afternoon, finding it impossible to get into the game.

"We couldn't get a break, especially with the pressure we had in the first half. Sometimes you don't get what you want from a football match but you're happy because you played well," Harry Redknapp said.

Hart arrived at the club as a teenager and he is now England's number one as the City fans reminded him afterwards. More importantly, he made a series of first-half saves, which were generally agreed to have justified his selection.

But they were not the reason he was selected ahead of Shay Given, who is as capable of making saves like that himself. Hart dominates his area, something Given failed to do last season, and with Mancini's City looking to be defensive at times, the manager will want a goalkeeper who can relieve pressure.

Mancini's hopeful words about retaining Given afterwards are unlikely to mean much. Given may have insisted he would leave if he wasn't selected but he must have been tempted to give it 90 more minutes to see how Hart would get along. His departure in inevitable now.

City found some cohesion in the second half, but in the first they were dreadful. Mario Balotelli will probably play instead of Shaun Wright-Phillips once he is available, but that still didn't explain Wright-Phillips's selection ahead of Adam Johnson.

Behind him, Micah Richards was struggling to comprehend anything at all and was left bewildered by Gareth Bale, especially during the first 45 minutes.

City didn't look like a team planning to be as adventurous with their football as they had been with their money. There was a front three of Carlos Tevez, the new captain, Wright-Phillips and Silva but the midfield was full of industry and Nigel de Jong committed a foul early just to remind everybody that the World Cup final was barely a month ago.

It was the only reminder as English football quickly got back to what it does best. Spurs, not surprisingly, had more understanding in their side.

Crouch and Defoe worked effectively together while Modric prompted from midfield, Bale tore at Richards and Aaron Lennon infuriated everyone on all sides on the right.

Defoe was the first to bring a save from Hart, twisting on to a Crouch knock-down but Hart reacted well. Tom Huddlestone then volleyed a Vincent Kompany header back towards goal but Hart was alert to that too, before he made an outstanding save from Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

The full-back's shot from outside the box was deflected further away from the goalkeeper, but Hart stretched to tip it over.

City barely left their half. They had one glimpse of goal but Tevez cut inside when he had a chance to shoot and the moment was lost.

Instead, they had to retreat. Kompany was outstanding at the back and he grew in stature as the game progressed but in the first 30 minutes, City were just putting out fires.

Bale hit the post and Kompany got in the way of Lennon's rebound before Hart saved from Defoe, who had Tottenham's best chance.

Huddlestone had picked him out with a perfect pass over the defence. Defoe was clear and through on Hart but his shot was too weak and too close to the 'keeper. The ball bounced off Kompany and was heading back towards goal before Aleksandar Kolarov cleared.

Mancini established some order at half-time and immediately Wright-Phillips found himself clear in the same position as Defoe but he hesitated and Assou-Ekotto made the necessary intervention.

Redknapp had announced before the game that Spurs were title contenders and he stuck by his word by going for the win. Robbie Keane and Roman Pavlyuchenko replaced Crouch and Defoe.

Adam Johnson was on for Wright-Phillips and he made an immediate difference, beating two defenders on the right before laying the ball off to Tevez but his shot was deflected over.

City now seemed more solid. "They didn't have a target," Redknapp said, "so all their front players were coming deep, which meant they could pass it around us at times but we stayed with our two players wide and tried to win the game."

Mancini reflected that he has a number of players to come into this squad, including Balotelli and probably James Milner.

They will need something to add to the industry and the progress of Silva will be fascinating.

But Spurs knew they should have won yesterday. Even in the second half with the game tighter, opportunities came along. Bale miskicked when a Kompany clearance fell to him 10 yards out.

In the final minutes, he compensated with a cross to Pavlyuchenko that Redknapp described as "unbelievable". Again Kompany was around to smother the chance.

Mancini's defenders demonstrated their willingness and industry yesterday. Now he will need to find the combination that allows his side to attack.

Sunday Independent

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