Saturday 15 December 2018

Battle at Bridge no sweat for Lamela

Spurs' Argentine forward says his experience of River-Boca derby leaves him with no fear of Blues

Erik Lamela: ‘Sometimes defenders kick me without the ball and I’m not saying anything and no-one sees. It’s part of the game.’ Photo: Reuters
Erik Lamela: ‘Sometimes defenders kick me without the ball and I’m not saying anything and no-one sees. It’s part of the game.’ Photo: Reuters

David Hytner

The Superclásico between the Buenos Aires rivals River Plate and Boca Juniors is a writhing, seething mass of colour and emotion, and it has come to represent the industry standard for the harum-scarum derby. Érik Lamela played in it for River and the Tottenham winger can tell the story of how his team's bus arrived at Boca's La Bombonera stadium in May 2011 without any glass in the windows. The stones hurled by the home supporters provided the ventilation.

"In Argentina the derby is different," Lamela says. "Outside the pitch it's different. You have to see it to realise it. It's much more than just one game. You have to win. If not, you are the worst. It's too much. It's not balanced."

Lamela is well placed to grade the Battle of Stamford Bridge - the dust-up between Chelsea and Spurs in May 2016, in which there was eye-gouging, bench-emptying flashpoints and a level of malevolence rarely seen in 21st-century Premier League football. Yellow cards fluttered like confetti. "It was similar to the Superclásico," Lamela says, which is quite the compliment.

Tottenham's return to west London today is framed by the events of that Monday evening two years ago when, amid the meltdowns, they surrendered a 2-0 lead to draw 2-2 and watched their title hopes evaporate. Leicester were crowned as champions that night.

It was the same last season when Spurs went back; they lost 2-1 in November 2016. The Battle of Stamford Bridge provided the back story and there is every chance it will continue to do so for a few seasons yet. It was such a rip-roarer that it serves as a reference point, not least in terms of the rivalry between the clubs.

Non-Londoners may not realise it but Chelsea view Tottenham as the club they most love to hate, as do West Ham - together with Arsenal. The situation is not ideal for Spurs. Six times a season they face opponents for whom the game is the ultimate must-win or must-not-lose affair.

John Terry gloried in the aftermath of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, posting a picture of himself alongside his central defensive partner, Gary Cahill. "Twenty-seven years. Not on my shift," Terry wrote. The last time that Tottenham won at Stamford Bridge was on February 10, 1990 - the day it was announced that Nelson Mandela would be released from prison.

"Of course, Chelsea don't like us and they did their best to win the game," Lamela says of the May 2016 meeting. "It's football. If it was the other way around, we would have done the same thing."

Lamela talks of how "a lot of things went on", with one of them being the stroll he took past Cesc Fàbregas, who was on the ground. During it he trod nonchalantly on the Chelsea midfielder's hand before unveiling his best innocent face.

"I didn't see him, I was just walking," Lamela says, fighting to remain convincing. "I stepped on his hand, but it's football, no? It can happen. Sometimes defenders kick me without the ball and I'm not saying anything and no one sees. It's part of the game.

"What happened in the game stays on the pitch and, afterwards, everything is finished. You do everything to try to win. Sometimes, in a tackle, you want to take the ball but you arrive one second too late and it's a big foul but you want to try to get the ball. This happens when the game is very intense."

Lamela insists that revenge is not a part of the equation for him but there is no doubt that an overdue victory at Stamford Bridge would be sweet. It would strengthen Spurs' hopes of a Champions League finish and, at the same time, gravely undermine those of Chelsea. "First we have to play the game but, if we won, we would have a very good chance to finish in the top four," Lamela says. "I honestly enjoy these derbies the most because I like to play with intensity, when the game is alive."

Lamela is enjoying his football more than ever and hinting at a return to top form after coming back in late November from a 13-month injury lay-off. He continues to dream of a World Cup call-up although he was overlooked by Jorge Sampaoli for the most recent Argentina squad.

Lamela, 26, says he is more mature now, more able to deal with on-field setbacks. Away from the game he has experienced the anguish of his brother, Axel, being paralysed by a swimming pool accident and the joy of the birth of his son, Tobias. What shines through is Lamela's sense of perspective. It could be needed today.

  • Chelsea v Tottenham Hotspur, Sky Sports, 4.0

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