Magical Van der Vaart gives Villans the elbow
Aston villa 1
if anyone received a present this Christmas better than the one Daniel Levy gave Harry Redknapp in August, they are fortunate indeed.
The Spurs chairman offered his manager Rafael van der Vaart at the end of the transfer window and Redknapp has been grinning like a kid with a new Buzz Lightyear ever since.
The Dutchman has managed only 15 appearances, but they have produced 10 goals and blessed the club with a touch of class. His brace last night enabled Spurs to overcome the dismissal of Jermain Defoe inside the first half-hour and underlined their continuing development as a major force. Villa, meanwhile, remain in transition, their promising youngsters in need of direction.
Fabien Delph, who had not even been in the match-day squad this season, was given a start in place of Nigel Reo-Coker. It was the 21-year-old's first start since rupturing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in April.
He and Jonathan Hogg, 22 earlier this month, faced the vastly more experienced partnership of Luka Modric and Wilson Palacios.
To assist them Emile Heskey was detailed to mark Palacios when Spurs had possession, presumably to prevent the Honduran starting attacks. On Villa's right flank the inexperienced pairing of Marc Albrighton and Eric Lichaj looked similarly overmatched against Spurs' in-form duo Gareth Bale and Benoit Assou-Ekotto.
For the opening quarter Villa matched their opponents, harrying them on the ball and themselves threatening. Indeed, Villa had the first chances. Albrighton was twice denied by Heurelho Gomes after James Collins nodded a free-kick down, then Gabby Agbonlahor wasted a free header after Delph picked him out.
Defensively, though, Villa were being exposed. Brad Friedel made a sharp save from Defoe after the one-touch football of Modric and Aaron Lennon had opened up the back four.
The American was beaten, however, after 15 minutes when Delph assumed a deep free-kick from Van der Vaart was going out and allowed Alan Hutton to pull it back. Younes Kaboul took advantage of Collins also switching off to volley in, only for Villa to be rescued by the linesman, who indicated the ball had gone out. Television replays suggested he was wrong.
That would have been controversial had Agbonlahor, released by Heskey, been able to beat Gomes four minutes later. Instead Spurs' opener had merely been delayed, Van der Vaart turning in Hutton's first-time cross after 24 minutes following a superb raking cross-field pass from Modric.
Tottenham looked on course for the three points, but then came Defoe's inexplicable elbow on Collins.
Assou-Ekoto thrashed the ball out of defence and as Collins rose to head, Defoe appeared to have a quick look then led with his arm, catching Collins just under the chin. Martin Atkinson, well placed, had little choice but to show red. Villa Park was suffused with renewed hope and noise and the home side pushed forward. Tottenham, however, had a plan.
Van der Vaart was left up, the remaining eight outfielders pulled back in front of the box seeking to break and join Van der Vaart where possible. Spurs' 10 men not only kept the ball for embarrassingly long periods, they created the best chance of the remainder of the half too, Palacios bringing a fine save from Friedel.
At the break Gerard Houllier, seeking more guile, and to retain the one-man advantage, replaced Hogg -- already booked and odds-on to collect another card -- with Stiliyan Petrov.
If the change meant Tottenham remained numerically inferior, it was the only aspect of the game in which that was the case. Villa had possession, but struggled to get in behind the visitors, resorting to crosses which, for the most part, Kaboul and Michael Dawson dealt with easily. Carlos Cuellar twice got free, but failed to test Gomes.
Spurs' greater class was underlined by their second goal. Stewart Downing's cross was cleared towards Van der Vaart, whose deft flick released Bale. The tormentor of Internazionale sprinted at Villa's defence, advancing 60 yards and stepping inside Cuellar, before finding Lennon.
The England winger stayed calm, rolling the ball back to Van der Vaart who whipped a first-time shot inside the far post.
Harry Redknapp withdrew the Dutchman soon after, a wise precaution on a freezing night given his fragile hamstring. He was, predictably, jeered off. There was a time when supporters would recognise class and applaud it, whatever the shirt colour, but even the spirit of Christmas will not bring that tradition back.
Eight minutes later, however, the 'bah humbug' atmosphere disappeared as Albrighton pulled a goal back. Collins flung himself at his curling cross and, while not getting a touch, his presence meant Gomes reacted too late as the ball sneaked inside the far post. (© Independent News Service)