ANYONE wanting to know why the Europa League is very much the poor relation of the Champions League needs only look at the attitude of English clubs to the competition. Tottenham Hotspur are Europa regulars and each time I have seen them, they have fielded below-strength teams. Against Monaco, Spurs left out current flavours-of-the-month Harry Kane and Dele Alli and fielded a team of second –stringers. Admittedly, for Spurs the game was affirmation of their place in the last 32, but a first team game is a first team game, non?
Thursday at 8.05pm doesn’t help, either. White Hart Lane is not a tube station so homeward journeys are that little bit more complicated. Tottenham isn’t the sort of area where you want to be roaming around in search of a tube (Seven Sisters), so the dash for the 9.59 from WHL station means you may miss some of the action.
It’s still a mystery why some clubs do not go hell-for-leather in the Europa. European competition should be a nice slither of icing on the cake, but too many see Thursday night football as a hindrance. Europe is ingrained into Spurs’ history, as the list of visitors plastered on the wall beneath the WHL stands testifies: Benfica, Dukla Prague, Austria Vienna, Chatham (!) and AC Milan are all there, along with other names from an interesting past.
Monaco are no Milan or Benfica, but the £25 tickets were snapped up and WHL was more-or-less full come kick-off time. I arrived at the ground behind a group of very fay-looking Monaco “Ultras” dressed in straw hats and sloganed t-shirts. It was hard to see them as menacing in any way.
White Hart Lane is tired…the new ground can take Spurs up a level and enable them to look Arsenal in the eye
Spurs regulars must be longing for the day when the club’s new ground is built. WHL is not a comfortable ground in the modern sense and access to it has been compromised further by the construction work now taking place. It used to be a ground with a great atmosphere, especially on night games, but it looks very tired right now with poor acoustics and a rather low-end electronic scoreboard.
The current Spurs team is very much up-to-date, however, playing some of the best football in the Premier at the moment. Spurs have been going well in Europe and the Premier. In the Europa, the five games before meeting Monaco had yielded three wins, one draw and one defeat. They had lost one game in 15 Premier outings and were beaten in the Capital One Cup by Arsenal. Three defeats in 21 – not a bad showing.
Monaco were in fourth place in Ligue 1, but 17 points behind leaders Paris St. Germain. They were unbeaten in five league games, winning 2-1 at Bastia a few days earlier, thanks to two goals from Lacina Traore.
The player I was keen to see was Stephane El Shaarawy, who was once tipped to be the next big thing when he was with AC Milan. His career has got a little derailed by a series of injuries and he joined Monaco on loan this season.
Another player whose career has stalled is Erik Lamela, who joined Spurs in 2013 as part of the bulk-buyer exercise undertaken by the club after the sale of Gareth Bale. Lamela cost Spurs close to £30m when he was signed from Roma, so expectation was sky-high for the youngster. Lamela has found it hard going in North London but there are signs that the tide is turning for the 23 year-old from Buenos Aires. We saw evidence of that after two minutes against Monaco. Ben Davies sent of a low cross and Lamela applied a deft left-foot finish: 1-0.
Within 15 minutes, it was 2-0 with Lamela, assisted by some suspect goalkeeping scored with another left-foot drive. Spurs played some lovely football in that first half and looked capable of scoring every time they closed in on the Monaco goal.
Lamela added another in the 37th minute, another low shot, this time with his right foot. The Spurs fans in the upper tier of the Park Lane end, a vantage point I had not enjoyed since the 1972 UEFA Cup final (albeit much lower in those days), were happy: “Are you West Ham in disguise…can we play you every week?.”
Three goals ahead in the half-time drizzle, Spurs had sealed the game. Unsurprisingly, the pace slackened in the second period, although Monaco did try to make a game of it. They pulled a goal back in the 61st minute when El Shaarawy nicely placed the ball past Hugo Lloris. The final goal came in the 77th minute when Tom Carroll, who had a productive match, scored from an acute angle with a Messi-lite goal.
So it was back to White Hart Lane, a somewhat inadequate station for football crowds. “They want to build a 60,000 stadium and ask people to try and get home from here?,” said one disgruntled supporter. He had a fair point, it is a problem other clubs have these days – have you ever got away from Chelsea, Arsenal and West Ham? London’s clubs are outgrowing the infrastructure of the crowded capital. A new ground, though, may move Spurs up from their current nearly-men status. Try winning the Europa League Spurs – come on, really try. It is there for the taking…and you get Champions League action, too, if you win it.