Tottenham Hotspur’s hopes of piling pressure on their English Premier League rivals stalled as they slumped to a surprise 1-0 loss to Stoke City here on Saturday.
The north Londoners endured a frustrating afternoon at White Hart Lane, dominating a humdrum game for long spells but singularly failing to land a killer punch against well-drilled and disciplined opponents, who duly snatched a late goal on the counter-attack four minutes from time through Glenn Whelan.
It was something of a reality check for Spurs, who have been widely touted as one of the most likely clubs to gatecrash the top flight’s established elite, and another feather in Stoke’s cap.
On this evidence, the Potteries club should not rule out a possible European campaign of their own next season.
For Tottenham’s manager, Harry Redknapp, however, there was only frustration. The days when the club were routinely contesting league titles are now but a distant memory for all but their silver-haired supporters but Redknapp is threatening to rekindle those glory, glory days.
Spurs began the afternoon knowing victory would take them level on points with Manchester United at the top of the Premier League, while a five-goal winning margin would make them leaders outright.
True, the latter was a fanciful notion given their opponents are hardly renowned for being a soft touch, but for a club so starved of success, the mere possibility of being discussed as league leaders was giddying stuff.
But Stoke had their own agenda, not least extending a fine run that had seen them beaten just twice in their previous 10 games, and despite losing their goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen to a virus 10 minutes before kick-off, they delivered the more sprightly start.
Just three minutes had elapsed when Matthew Etherington was set clear on the left of the Spurs penalty area.
His cross-shot zipped across the six-yard box but, before any Stoke player could apply a finishing touch, Jonathan Woodgate, making his first appearance of the season, flicked out his head to nod behind.
If that was a reminder of what Spurs have missed this term as Woodgate recovered from a serious injury, they were given another reminder of his notoriously frail body 10 minutes later when he hobbled off.
But Steve Simonsen, deputising for Sorensen, was still forced into two smart saves in the space of 10 minutes, first from Peter Crouch’s dipping header and then Aaron Lennon’s long-range piledriver.
However, Simonsen was not fighting a lone battle. He was left helpless in the 26th minute when Crouch, nodded back across goal. The ball seemed certain to drop into the far corner until James Beattie, appearing from nowhere, somehow hacked off the line.
When Niko Kranjcar smacked the left-hand post with a crisp low shot seconds later, Redknapp must have feared this was going to be one of those afternoons.
At least Spurs refused to let their morale dip. They maintained their siege of the Stoke goal after the interval, with Robbie Keane enjoying a rare sight of goal in the 49th minute after being put through by Wilson Palacios.
But the Republic of Ireland striker’s angled shot was well saved by Simonsen and Ryan Shawcross brilliantly denied Crouch on the rebound.
There was more chaos in the Stoke goalmouth on the hour when Lennon’s cross from the right caused panic. After Crouch’s header was blocked by Beattie – defending superbly yet again – Simonsen was just able to pounce on the loose ball before Kranjcar.
With the home fans growing edgy, Redknapp sent Roman Pavlyuchenko, something of a forgotten man at White Hart Lane, on in a bid to break the deadlock.
But Stoke remained unruffled and, with just minutes remaining, they landed a blow of their own. A fine run from Ricardo Fuller ended with the striker laying back to Whelan, who curled into the top corner.
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