Tottenham Hotspur ended their own losing streak and the valiant resistance of Stevenage Borough to set up an FA Cup quarter-final with Bolton Wanderers, but this was a victory that came at a cost.
With Tottenham’s automatic Champions League qualification looking in jeopardy for the first time in a while as Arsenal rally, Michael Dawson and Aaron Lennon suffered injuries that will prevent them from contributing at a key period in the campaign. Dawson’s injury, which forced him off after eight minutes, is thought to be serious, with Harry Redknapp saying “it would be a miracle if he came back before the end of the season”.
The manager added: “He did both his ankle and his knee and it doesn’t look good.” Lennon damaged a hamstring, the same problem that has caused him to miss parts of this season. Those losses were the only significant blots on an evening that started alarmingly for Redknapp, as Stevenage opened the scoring in the fourth minute, but concluded with a deserved win.
It also featured a timely reminder of Jermain Defoe’s finishing prowess as the striker who has fallen down the pecking order since the surprise signing of Louis Saha in January scored two splendid goals to increase his tally for the season to 15 from 29 games, only 17 of them starts. Redknapp suggested that although that strike rate is not enough to earn him a regular start for Spurs, it should secure him a spot in England’s Euro 2012 squad. “There are not many top strikers around – if there’s a problem area in the [England] team, that’s it. He’s right up there with the best of them so he must have a great chance [of being selected].”
Redknapp, of course, may be doing that selecting but his more immediate concern ahead of this game was getting Spurs’ season back on track after the draw at the Lamex Stadium and heavy league defeats to Arsenal and Manchester United. To do that he deployed a strong team, with Gareth Bale, Scott Parker and Rafael van der Vaart among the starters. None of which stopped Stevenage from seizing an early lead.
Ryan Nelsen caught Joel Byrom late as the midfielder dashed into the box and the referee, Michael Oliver, awarded a penalty. Byrom got up to send Carlo Cudicini the wrong way. Tottenham’s woe deepened when Dawson was carried off on a stretcher minutes later, a leg buckling as he landed after an aerial challenge.
Stevenage were proving accomplished opponents, their crisp passing and athletic vigilance warning Spurs that a comeback would not come easily. And they almost doubled their lead in the 25th minute, when Jon Ashton met a long free-kick, but his header narrowly missed the target.
Within seconds Tottenham had their first shot – and the equaliser. Bale picked out Defoe with a 60-yard pass that the striker trapped with one touch before firing a fine low shot past Chris Day from just outside the area, delivering a concise reminder of his potency. Tottenham had the lion’s share of possession as the half wore on, but they seldom threatened.
Stevenage almost snatched the lead early in the second period as a corner caused chaos in the Spurs box and Mark Roberts stabbed the ball at goal from close range. Cudicini produced a smart save. Roberts’ anguish at that miss was made worse in the 55th minute when his challenge led to Bale going down in the Stevenage box. Ade Adebayor converted the penalty.
Bale almost made it 3-1 on the hour when he crashed a swerving shot off the crossbar from 25 yards. Stevenage, however, were not about to fold. Roberts was within inches of equalising with a powerful header in the 65th minute but it bounced off the underside of the bar and away.
It took another superb finish from Defoe to banish the prospect of further shocks for Spurs. In the 75th minute he collected a throw-in from Bale, scampered into the box and guided a low shot past Day and into the bottom corner.
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