Is There A Way Back For Bentaleb At Spurs?

 When Nabil Bentlaleb was signed on a season-long loan deal by Schalke at the end of August, his Tottenham career appeared all but over. When Bentaleb then began his stint in the Bundesliga with a series of poor showings, it appeared any permanent move to Germany may be scuppered by his own doing. And when he went on to make disparaging comments about English fans, it seemed the Algerian was trying hard to burn any remaining bridges he had left at Spurs.

Just four weeks ago, Bentaleb was not only an outcast at Tottenham. He had also sunk to the depths of despair in the eyes of the German press, copping a brutal slaying following Schalke’s winless start in the first five games of their season. It looked a matter of just how far the midfielder could fall from the high of manager Mauricio Pochettino’s first choice defensive midfielder just two seasons ago.

But now, following a run of three games in which Bentaleb has been the star attraction, he is suddenly the new darling of Schalke fans and the Bundesliga alike. The culmination came at the weekend in a man of the match display during Schalke’s 3-0 drubbing of Mainz. Playing a hand in all three goals, Bentaleb managed a brace of his own bookending one from Max Meyer. A goal in each half and a thoroughly dominant display; it doesn’t get much better than that in what was surely Bentlaleb’s finest senior performance to date.

The frustration with which Bentaleb displayed during his latter appearances at Tottenham and early days at Schalke have disappeared. In its’ place, a return to the dynamic and skilful midfielder who uses the ball beautifully, his one-touch passing and neat finishing a sight to behold. It is reminiscent of his finest moments at Spurs, when he was the future of the club; even before the full arrival of Harry Kane. The two goals portrayed a calm, unflappable character at ease with his environment and comfortable in his ability. The frustration replaced by pure skill and enjoyment.

That it has taken Bentaleb time to settle in Germany should come as no surprise. He is not yet 22, and it is barely a day over two months since the move was confirmed. Whilst his initial displays were perhaps more underwhelming than expected, he has made up for this in spades with three goals and an assist in his past three appearances. And some simply sublime football.

Given the sudden change in Bentaleb’s attitude and form, the question arises as to whether a return to Tottenham at the completion of his loan deal is at all a possibility. Recent experience suggests that it would be unlikely, and there are two major stumbling blocks in the way.

Firstly, a return would require a significant change of heart and even an adjustment in philosophy from Pochettino. He has shown in his handling of many others that were unable to toe the line that, once you are cast out, there is no way back. But would Bentlaleb’s youth, his inexperience and of course his ability when in form and mentally switched on, be enough to persuade the manager to give him another chance?

At Spurs, we have seen that if you are loaned out as a senior player by Pochettino, then you are as good as sold (see Aaron Lennon and Federico Fazio). But perhaps there is a small chance that Bentaleb is more in the category of a Clinto N’jie, who is also young and for whom there may yet be a way back in to Pochettino’s plans.

The second issue is that of the mental state of Bentaleb himself. If he is happy in Germany, as seems the case, then this would seemingly override any happiness he felt during the early days at Spurs. It appears he feels burned by the club, manager and fans; and sees his loan deal as a transfer in all but name only. So this secondary aspect looks as though it is even less likely to be overcome.

With a transfer fee already agreed between the two clubs, pending the successful completion of Bentaleb’s loan, this still looks the most likely outcome. But there is a lot of time between now and the end of the season. If Bentaleb and Tottenham are still in some form of communication, if they haven’t cut all ties, then just maybe there is an outside chance that he could come back. But given the amount of proverbial water that must go under the bridge for this to occur, it seems a long shot.

Tottenham Turn To Youth In League Cup

Tottenham head to Anfield for a Round of 16 League Cup clash with Liverpool on Tuesday night. Given the build up of fixtures in recent weeks and Mauricio Pochettino’s stated desire to rotate, the brightest youngsters in Spurs’ squad appear set to be given a fantastic opportunity to shine.

Spurs made the League Cup final two seasons ago, and it always looks like a winnable trophy for teams in and around the top 6. Yet this season Spurs seemingly have bigger fish to fry as they chase Premier League success and a decent run in the Champions League. So the League Cup is an opportunity to play and develop youngsters rather than chase success. Whilst winning is of course still the aim, the schedule dictates that it is simply a bonus in this competition.

With much of the first team set for a well earned rest on Tuesday night, attention turns to those academy graduates, youngsters and back-up players who will be given a chance so rarely afforded thus far this term. It is their opportunity to present a strong case for inclusion in Premier League and Champions League action to come. Or at the very least, maintain their status as a future prospect and in training with the first team.

Here are our predictions for the team that Tottenham will put on the park come Tuesday night:

Michel Vorm filled in admirably for Hugo Lloris during two and a half Premier League games at the start of the season, and will no doubt give the club Captain a rest against Liverpool. Surely one of the best back-up goalkeepers plying their trade in England, it is not hard to picture the Dutchman as a likely first choice at several other clubs in the top division. Pau Lopez, the Espanyol loanee, could register his first subs bench appearance.

In the heart of defence, Kevin Wimmer and Cameron Carter-Vickers will continue their budding partnership as second-choice centre halves. Much has been made of Wimmer’s recent absence from the line-up, yet he made the bench in Bournemouth and will surely start here. Carter-Vickers was excellent in his previous League Cup game; the experience the 18-year-old gains here will be nothing short of invaluable. It will also go a long way to determining just how close he is to starting in the league, should the first choice Belgian pairing be unavailable.

The fullback situation is a little less clear, however it appears Ben Davies and Kieran Trippier will be given game time. The alternatives, Kyle Walker-Peters and Anton Walkes, do not seem to be in Pochettino’s immediate plans. Walkes did enter the fray late against Gillingham, but the chance to rest Danny Rose and Kyle Walker should be sufficient to give Davies and Trippier the nod.

Tom Carroll and Harry Winks have seen little action in recent weeks, but should each return in the middle. At 24, Carroll has been unable to find an opening at Tottenham this season with the added midfield depth, despite injury and suspension to Moussa Dembele. His junior by four years, Winks plays a similar role and has an opportunity to push ahead of Carroll in what looks like a head to head battle for the reserve central midfield position. They are each a fair way back in the queue, yet one or two injuries could change things dramatically.

Further forward, and Georges-Kevin N’Koudou will no doubt appear on the left of attacking midfield, with academy graduate Josh Onomah on the right. Both players have shown they deserve more time in limited displays thus far. N’Koudou’s electric pace is a clear and exciting point of difference, and Onomah’s clever and tricky ball movement will be on show once again. Each regulars on the bench, they must be close to usurping the likes of Mousa Sissoko from the first team. Especially if the latter is suspended following his errant elbow at Bournemouth.

A start for 17-year-old prodigy Marcus Edwards in the central attacking midfield role would be a boost for club and supporters alike. Given the significant workload of Christian Eriksen, Erik Lamela and Heung-Min Son in recent weeks, it seems the perfect opportunity for this to occur. One of the aforementioned three can provide an alternative should Edwards struggle or be unable to get through the 90 minutes. One or both of the others could even be left out of the matchday squad.

Had Vincent Janssen been banging goals in for fun, he too would likely be rested for this match. But with Harry Kane’s return imminent and the Dutch striker still in need of confidence boosting, Janssen will almost certainly start up front. What will be interesting is whether young striker Shayon Harrison is named on the subs bench. Harrison missed the Gillingham fixture due to injury, and an appearance in the second half would assist his development greatly.

Spurs are going to be up against it as Liverpool will likely field a vastly more experienced line up. Without European competition to drain their resources, the Reds require less rotation from the weekend defeat of West Brom. They will surely start strong favourites and must believe they can go all the way in the League Cup. This young Tottenham team, however, have a great opportunity to prove their wares. And even if they lose, one or two Spurs youngsters making an impact and a statement would be of huge benefit in a season where depth is being well and truly tested.

Spurs Drawing Way Out Of Title Contention

 There are no easy games in the Premier League, a fact reinforced during Tottenham’s contest at Bournemouth on Saturday. Yet Champion teams find a way to win, and Spurs are not currently displaying the credentials of a league-winning team. A failure to inflict defeat upon lower-level opposition cost Spurs a shot at glory last season, and history appears to be repeating this time around.

Tottenham have the meanest defence in the Premier League, yet a failure to capitalise on opportunities in front of goal is seeing their early season form wasted. Back to back draws in the Premier League, either side of another scoreless draw in the Champions League, leave Spurs in danger of dropping out of the top 4. Let alone challenge for the league title.

And that is ultimately their stated aim; as it should be, to win the league. Draws away to West Brom and Bournemouth threaten to derail this goal and leave them needing to consistently topple the best in the league to have any chance of staying in contention at the top. Tottenham of course have shown this is possible with a dismantling of Manchester City at the beginning of October, but what we have seen since has fallen well short of that dramatic high point.

Last season Leicester City won six games by a scoreline of 1-0; Spurs only managed 2 x 1-0 victories and drew 13 matches; more than any other side in the top 6. This, in a nutshell, was the difference between the two main premiership contenders. League winning teams just win, no matter the circumstances or the difficulties they may face. They will themselves into the lead, whether through a late goal when being beaten for most of the day. Or by getting their nose in front early and holding on desperately at the other end.

In a competition of such small margins, these draws are going to come back to bite Tottenham. Already they have four in 2016/17, the equal most of any in the Premier League. It’s a recurring them to the Spurs’ game that, when they’re not quite 100% or are not quite playing near their best, they are unable to get across the line. They don’t often lose – that’s certainly a great trait in itself – but not winning is potentially even more costly than not losing.

It doesn’t take a genius to understand that football games are won by scoring goals, and Tottenham have scored just one in their last three. The absence of Harry Kane has been felt acutely during these three games. There is no guarantee that he would make all the difference, but there is no doubt that Spurs miss him. Badly. They are just ever so slightly short of goal scoring options.

While the likes Arsenal and Liverpool are either holding on to or knicking games by a 1 goal margin, Tottenham are left with draw after draw. Having the meanest defence in England is one thing, but it’s of little use if opponents are simply able to clog their own midfield and reduce or restrict chances at the other end. And when those chances come, the ruthlessness in finishing is also lacking. With Vincent Janssen still finding his feet, more is needed from the likes of Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela as a goal scoring outlet.

It cannot be left to just Heung-Min Son with support from Dele Alli to find a way through. Defensive-minded sides like West Brom, or teams that press effectively like Bournemouth, do not have too much trouble shutting down 1 or 2 key goal scorers. But when the threat is magnified, when there are 4 or 5 who can and regularly do get on the scoresheet, it is much more difficult. That is where Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool all have the edge over Tottenham.

These draws will come back to haunt Spurs, one way or another and in some shape or form. They were not at their best on Saturday, not even close to it, yet that is exactly the point. On days like this, the teams who achieve great things just manage to get themselves across the line. To get the job done like Leicester did last season. Tottenham have shown significant growth and have much more depth this season, while their defence is without question the best in the competition. But in front of goal, where it matters most in finishing teams off, there is significant work still to be done.

Leicester City’s Successful European Debut

 Leicester City, the unlikely champions of England last season, have continued their fairytale by marking a Champions League debut with three convincing group stage wins. They share a group with Belgian champions Club Brugge KV, Danish champions FC København, and FC Porto who finished 3rd in Portugal. Having begun by grabbing a 3-0 victory away in Bruges, two 1-0 home victories followed against Porto and København, the latter during the week.

The opening win away in Bruges, possibly the most convincing of the three, saw an early goal from Marc Albrighton coupled by two from Riyad Mahrez either side of half time. Leicester came into the match following at 4-1 defeat away at Liverpool. Manager Claudio Ranieri commented on the early Champions League goal, which “gave us more confidence.” Ranieri hailed the match to be “an important win after the Liverpool defeat.” Leicester impressed in defence that evening with Club Brugge managing just three shots on goal, none of which beat keeper Kasper Schmeichel. It was this first match in September that set the stage for a fiery Leicester City side, ready to show Europe that they were up to the challenge of the prestigious competition.

Leicester City headed back to the East Midlands to host FC Porto, an experienced side with many years under the belt in European competition. Expected by many to top the group, Porto’s own campaign this season began with a draw at home to København. Islam Slimani, the club record summer signing for Leicester from Sporting CP, was the eventual scorer of the decisive goal in the clash between these two sides. He earned the nickname of “Dragon Slayer” during his time in Portugal, a testament to his strong performances against Porto (known colloquially in Portugal as the Dragons). Slimani did not disappoint in maintaining his nemesis value for a new club, finding the net from a cross by Mahrez past keeper Iker Casillas. Jesús Corona, Porto’s young Mexican winger, hit the post in the dying minutes but the Foxes were able to hold on to all three points.

During the week at the King Power Stadium, Leicester hosted FC København. They had impressed in their second match by thumping four goals past Club Brugge. The Danish champions were in fine form, unbeaten in 23 matches before the Tuesday night clash. A nervy start to the first half saw Leicester go 1-0 up, with Slimani this time assisting for a back-heeled Mahrez finish. Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel denied former Cardiff City striker Andreas Cornelius an equalizer just minutes after. Jamie Vardy, although goalless in his last eight games, put in a real shift. His work rate paid off and culminated in a cross to Slimani for the winning goal. Schmeichel denied Cornelius again in the dying minutes, keeping a third European clean sheet.

As the referee blew the whistle for full time at the King Power, Leicester had achieved what so many believed they could not. Nine points in three Champions League fixtures, and three clean sheets. The Foxes are on absolute fire in Europe.

Leicester travel to Denmark for the reverse fixture on November 2nd, arguably one of the toughest matches they have scheduled in their group. Qualification from the group seems almost inevitable, as the Foxes look to make their debut European campaign one to remember. Will they continue their soaring form, or will lacklustre performances in the Premier League begin to reflect in Europe?

Jeremy Pepino


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