Chris Burton reflects on another moment of brilliance from Gareth Bale as he guided Tottenham past 10-man West Brom on Sunday.
Last Updated: 03/02/13 5:31pm
Tottenham's narrow victory over West Brom at The Hawthorns on Sunday owed much to one moment of madness from Goran Popov and one moment of brilliance from Gareth Bale.
The Baggies saw their Macedonian full-back dismissed for spitting at Kyle Walker early in the second half, and Spurs' in-form Welsh winger made the most of the hosts' numerical disadvantage to crash home a spectacular winner.
Spurs are now just a point behind Chelsea in the race for third place and automatic qualification for the UEFA Champions League, while West Brom have suffered five defeats in six - with Steve Clarke's side without a win since Boxing Day.
West Brom boss Steve Clarke made three alterations to his starting XI, as the Baggies looked to halt an alarming wobble. Republic of Ireland international frontman Shane Long was handed a recall alongside Romelu Lukaku, while Claudio Yacob came back into the midfield and Steven Reid slotted in at right back. Peter Odemwingie was not considered for selection following his antics on transfer deadline day, with the Nigeria international having pushed for a switch to Queens Park Rangers.
Tottenham once again went with their tried and tested, with Andre Villas-Boas sticking with those who started a midweek 1-1 draw at Norwich. That meant Scott Parker continued in the heart of midfield, while new arrival Lewis Holtby had to settle for a place on the bench. With striking options in short supply, Jermain Defoe - who would hobble off injured to offer his manager an attacking headache - led the line with Clint Dempsey offering support from a deep-lying role.
West Brom looked to make a mockery of their recent struggles and get at the visitors from the off. They were prepared to go long on occasions, with Lukaku's power and pace and the tireless running of Long keeping Spurs' back four occupied. Yacob's return was intended to give them more bite in midfield, with the Baggies aware of the threat posed by the creative talents on the opposite side of the field.
Tottenham stuck to the game plan which has served them well this season, with Villas-Boas looking for his side to get the ball on the deck and play neat, passing football. They also try to get Bale and Aaron Lennon involved as often as possible, with both men possessing blistering pace and an improved end product. With only Defoe to aim at up top, Spurs have little choice at present but to favour a passing game and they are fortunate to have so many 'playmakers' on their books.
Clarke would rather have waited a little longer than 48 minutes before making his first change, but Popov's show of petulance left him with little choice. With his starting left-back sent from the field, the Baggies boss had to sacrifice forward-thinking Lukaku and send on Liam Ridgewell. He was solid enough, but Spurs' goal did come from his area of the pitch. With West Brom chasing the game late on, Clarke replaced Graham Dorrans and Yacob with Marc-Antoine Fortune and Markus Rosenbrg, but neither was able to get on the ball and alter the course of the tie.
An untimely injury to Defoe towards the end of the first half forced Villas-Boas into making the first change of the afternoon. With Emmanuel Adebayor away on international duty with Togo, he had no other striking options available to him and opted to send on Holtby to complement Dempsey. The Germany international looks to be some player, with his vision and ability to pick out a pass likely to serve Spurs well. Spurs' other changes made little impression on proceedings, with William Gallas helping to see the game out after replacing Walker and Gylfi Sigurdsson offered a late run in place of Lennon.
Mark Clattenburg had one big decision to make, and got it spot on. He had kept his cards safely tucked away until Popov left him with no choice but to reach for his pocket. Clattenburg's positioning allowed him to make a game-altering call, as he was looking right at the incident and required no consultation with his assistant. He went on to show one more card, with Dorrans cautioned for a late challenge on Parker.
West Brom's early-season success was built on the back of a collective effort, rather than the brilliance of certain individuals. Goals have been in short supply for much of the campaign, so they are looking for more from their frontmen. Long never lets anyone down, and was full of running again on Sunday, but he failed to make the most of a couple of half chances. Lukaku was also restricted to fleeting sights of goal before being replaced.
Bale is the man of the moment for Spurs, with the Welsh winger enjoying a productive run of form in front of goal. When in the mood, he is virtually unplayable and can claim to influence matches in a manner more associated with the likes of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Bale was at his brilliant best again at The Hawthorns, posing a constant threat after being given license to roam by Villas-Boas. Holtby also looks like he will prove to be a shrewd acquisition, with his abilities completing those of Dembele and Parker.
These are difficult times for West Brom, with a brilliant run up until Christmas having come to an alarming halt. Clarke will be concerned at having taken just one point from the last 18 on offer and knows his Baggies must turn the corner soon if they are to avoid seeing their season fizzle out. Upcoming fixtures against Liverpool, Sunderland and Chelsea suggest things will not get any easier, but the Baggies are still in the top-half of the table and have 34 points on the board.
Tottenham now have every right to believe that they are capable of forcing their way into the top three and securing a direct passage into the UEFA Champions League group stage. They sit just one point behind capital rivals Chelsea and have seen the Blues wobble on a regular basis over recent weeks. Spurs do, however, have a testing run ahead of them, with a two-legged Europa League clash with Lyon slotted in alongside league fixtures against the likes of Newcastle, West Ham, Arsenal and Liverpool.