(By NANTHA KUMAR) : The exit of two managers has combined to shape the fortunes of Harry Redknapp and Roberto Di Matteo as they contemplate their showdown in the English FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday.
THE Tottenham Hotspur of late last year were the pride of London and its media pack. Dashing in their attacking intent, daring in their play and consistent enough to make us overlook that Arsenal did exist in their neighbourhood, Spurs were mooted by the excitable hacks to muster a tilt at the Premiership title.
Five wins in 15 games since the start of the year have punctured hopes of a Champions League berth that had looked profusely assured back then and tossed Harry Redknapp’s side into the has-been heap.
This aim of rejoining the elite of Europe remains a possibility only on paper as “Spurs weigh the prospect of Newcastle United whistling past them to fourth place”.
The encounters against the Magpies and their north London foes in February represented the high and low points for Spurs.
In the first Saturday that followed Redknapp’s acquittal from charges of tax evasion, his men turned in their best display of the year with a solid collectivism that underpinned their 5-0 rout of Newcastle.
Fifteen days later, they were pasted 2-5 at Arsenal, despite enjoying a 2-0 lead inside 30 minutes.
Since that setback, Spurs have only won once – against Swansea City last Sunday – and need to thank their easy path into the last four of the English FA Cup for providing the highlights of 2012.
Under such circumstances, the “Harry for England” chants do not quite have the urgent ring of two months ago.
Redknapp, just like his Spurs, is overhyped to the point of inflicting delusion on tabloid lackeys and supporters.
Both will face the naked moment of the FA Cup semi-finals on Sunday, when Chelsea could expose them for what they are: A manager and team abound on myths.
The majority in the London media – still pleased that their views matter in the appointment of the England manager – are keen on batting for the cuddly Cockney. It is predictable to blame Spurs’ slump on the distraction of Redknapp being the leading candidate for the England job, which perhaps is the media’s way of insinuating that their chum and his charges should be put out of their misery as soon as it is convenient for both to progress.
There is a modicum of truth in this theory. Spurs did not see the need to reinforce their squad in the January transfer window, which could be down to the reluctance of the board to endorse purchases when Redknapp’s future at White Hart Lane is far from settled.
The 33-year-old Louis Saha on a free transfer from Everton isn’t exactly a long-term plan to shout about. Instead of making smart buys, Redknapp allowed Roman Pavlyuchenko – never his pet player – and Steven Pienaar, who appears to have rediscovered his form on his return to Everton, to leave.
Given Redknapp’s penchant for recycling his resources, the burden of salvaging the season is left to a small group at White Hart Lane. Eight players who have started a minimum of 27 league games are feeling the impact of lethargy and this problem is out in the open.
Scott Parker fearing his hamstring might go if he had played in the defeat to Norwich City on Monday bears out this supposition and he might not be the only one fearing a long-term injury with the European Championship looming in two months’ time. This is not the only fallout that could be linked to Fabio Capello’s resignation as England manager in February as the Spurs’ slide has shifted Redknapp’s ambitions for this term.
The FA Cup is a major concern now that they are not guaranteed of a grand finale to a season that had promised much in the autumn.
For the keener follower, though, Spurs’ current malaise is reminiscent of the previous term when, after Real Madrid belted them off the Champions League, they only managed seven victories in their last 18 matches.
The issue is as much about managing expectations as it’s about the lack of capable second liners in the squad. In particular, Spurs lack the defensive heft of Chelsea – despite the nucleus of this team aging without poise and purpose.
Roberto Di Matteo, too, had his fortunes forged by the departure of another manager – Andre Villas-Boas was booted out in an honoured sacrificial ritual at Stamford Bridge. The Italian caretaker manager now finds himself in a position to do an Avram Grant.
The sacking of Jose Mourinho in September 2007 elevated the Israeli to the dug-out. Back then, Grant silenced his detractors – from within the dressing room and beyond – by reaching the League Cup and Champions League finals.
The Blues lost both – to Spurs and Manchester United respectively. Grant’s four-year contract, which was signed in December 2007, was binned. All said, Di Matteo knows that his outlook is bleaker as a permanent choice at Stamford Bridge.
The Italian had stints at Milton Keynes Dons – which he steered to the play-off semi-finals for a place in the Championship – and West Bromwich Albion. He took the Baggies to the Premiership in season 2010/11 and was dismissed last February when the club underwent a slump.
Di Matteo returned to his old club in June at the behest of Villas-Boas and, since replacing him early last month, has restored the team’s confidence.
The Blues are only a game away from their first final since Carlo Ancelotti guided them to their sixth FA Cup triumph – over Grant’s Portsmouth – in 2010 and this could be the meagre consolation for their possibly missing out on Champions League football next season.
The Champions League last four against Barcelona takes place next Wednesday and the season might end for Chelsea if Josep “Pep” Guardiola’s side keep their end of the bargain.
In such a scenario, the London derby at Wembley this weekend presents a certain complexity for Di Matteo. Beating Spurs – which sit two points away in the Premiership – would serve as a psychological blow to them in the race for Champions League football.
Di Matteo, however, must surmount the same hurdles that his counterpart faces: Weariness and plugging a leaky rearguard.
The Spurs game represents the first of four games for the Blues in the next 10 days, with trips to Camp Nou and the Emirates Stadium to be negotiated in a congested list of appointments.
While Spurs have injuries to excuse their poor defensive record, Chelsea – which conceded nine goals in their last eight fixtures – have no such way out.
The club’s refusal to phase out their fading stars – from John Terry and Frank Lampard to Didier Drogba – has resulted in a certain staleness at Stamford Bridge and the more the indulgence continues, the harder it will be for Chelsea to regain their past majesty. A victorious FA Cup run, on the other hand, might as well be the swansong to cap the richly rewarded careers of Chelsea’s old guard.
At this point, any form of consolation will be eagerly grabbed by both these London sides.
Catch the live telecast of the match on Astro on Monday, April 16, 12.55am: ESPN HD (Channel 832) and Star Sports (Channel 813).
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