THIS European tie was billed as David versus Goliath. The reality was somewhat different. It was actually David versus Goliath’s older, meaner brother, with a few of his burly North London mates backing him up. Tottenham Hotspur’s superior strength, class and skill outshone even the blazing Tynecastle floodlights last night as Hearts suffered the heaviest European defeat in their history.
Spurs killed this Europa League play-off stone dead inside half an hour with mesmerising goals from Rafael van der Vaart, Jermain Defoe and Jake Livermore. Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon added two more after the interval as the first leg of the Battle of Britain ended with a victorious, and deafening, English roar. The Scottish response barely amounted to a whimper.
Not that Hearts didn’t exert themselves or merely gave up. Truth was they were outclassed by a significant margin. They couldn’t get near Tottenham, who began the match at breathtaking tempo and only eased up slightly in the second half. Even then, they scored twice without conceding.
The chasm between the SPL and England’s Premier League has been steadily growing for years, although few expected Spurs to enjoy such a straightforward evening in Gorgie. This was their first competitive outing of the season, and they were flying. It was England’s fifth-best side against Scotland’s third best but proved to be a hopeless mis-match.
Passing, moving, crossing, shooting, tackling – Tottenham’s performance had everything. Their players looked fitter than Hearts’ by some distance despite the Edinburgh club having six competitive matches behind them. Yet this was an understrength Tottenham, believe it or not. Their midfield was makeshift due to a raft of injuries and their substitutes’ bench included two goalkeepers due to a lack of fit bodies. Luka Modric, if he does join Chelsea, is unlikely to be missed on this evidence.
Paulo Sergio, the Hearts manager, spent most of the first half waving his arms in anger in the technical area as the opposition’s imperious performance left Hearts chasing shadows. While the Portuguese felt he got a reaction from his players in the second 45 minutes, he bemoaned the lethargic start and said blame should be apportioned to him for defeats.
“It’s hard but the positive for us was the second half,” he said. “In the first half we were on the pitch like someone who bought a ticket to see the match. We just had our eyes on the ball, we were not pressing at all. When you let Tottenham touch the ball and run into spaces it’s dangerous for you. We tried to give a different image in the second half. It’s a huge difference between us and Tottenham but we should have done better in the first half. I think our players are intelligent people and if they understand what we said at half-time and they try to change it, maybe they can go home and think if they started like they did in the second half it would be different.
“I dream about something big, about giving an excellent night to our supporters and to try to win the game. If you work hard you don’t lose goals. You can work together with a good aggressive action in defence, then you can finish the game without suffering any goals. What we did made that impossible. In the first half people were buying a ticket to see the Tottenham players and I’m not happy about that. They gave a different answer in the second half.
“In football, you should learn from the mistakes you made. The people who don’t learn maybe aren’t going to play too many times for me. When my team loses I am responsible. Period. But I learned about my players last night. I learn about them every day. I am seeing positive things in every one of them and I’m seeing negative things too. It’s my job to see the negative things and improve on them.
“We reacted in the second half against Tottenham and I believe they are going to do the same on Sunday (against Kilmarnock). To the fans I just want to say thanks for their support. They are fantastic.”
Tottenham were without a host of established stars for their first competitive outing this season, including Modric, Alan Hutton, Sandro, Ledley King, William Gallas and Peter Crouch. You’d never have known they were depleted. Even their substitutes’ bench looked awesome. The appearance of two goalkeepers on it hinted at dwindling numbers but Harry Redknapp, the visiting manager, was still able to name Brad Friedel, Tom Huddlestone, Roman Pavlyuchenko, Sebastien Bassong and Vedran Corluka amongst his reserves. His starting line-up was even more decorated.
Hearts welcomed back Andy Webster from injury but it wasn’t a night the Scotland defender will wish to remember. It took Tottenham just five minutes to score as the talismanic Van der Vaart enjoyed an immediate impact. Defoe initiated a one-two which resulted in a loose ball around the 18-yard line. Marius Zaliukas attempted a clearance which struck Van der Vaart on the arm at point-blank range. With those in maroon appealing for a free-kick, the Dutchman continued and calmly prodded the ball past Marian Kello, much to Sergio’s disgust.
Seven minutes later came the second with Tottenham’s powerful, commanding start showing no sign of abating. This time Lennon was the instigator, playing a one-two with Van der Vaart and threading the ball through to Defoe. The striker’s control on the move was instinctive and sublime, taking him clear of Danny Grainger before another impressive finish saw the ball nestle in the net.
And then came the third, the end product of another lighting-quick exchange on the edge of the Hearts box. Van der Vaart supplied Lennon, who laid the ball off to Livermore. He sprinted into the penalty area, waited for Zaliukas’ sliding challenge and then planted the ball beyond Kello. The tie was as good as over.
Half-time saw the legendary Dave Mackay presented to the Tynecastle crowd, and how Hearts required his fighting spirit. They managed to muster some of it and opened the second half far more assertively. A series of corners produced a couple of goalmouth scrambles as Spurs, for the first time, looked moderately rattled. A driving run by David Templeton took him in behind the visiting defence only for Kyle Walker to dispossess him in the act of shooting. Then normal service resumed as Huddlestone, Van der Vaart’s replacement, exchanged passes with Defoe for a shot which clipped Kello’s fingertips as it flew into the crowd. Bizarrely, the Italian referee Paolo Tagliavento awarded a goal-kick. As if to atone for the injustice, Tottenham went and scored again. Huddlestone sent a loping pass through for Bale on the run, his first touch cushioned the ball wide of the advancing Kello and his second rolled it into the empty net.
The fifth encapsulated the difference in pace between the SPL and England’s Premier League. Tottenham substitute Andros Townsend emerged from defence at lightning speed following a Hearts attack. He slid a pass through to Defoe, who scampered forward to deliver a driven cross which Lennon expertly cushioned beyond Kello from six yards. The entire move took around seven seconds from start to finish.
“I didn’t expect that, I thought it would be a really difficult night,” said Redknapp. “The speed at which we passed the ball made it difficult for Hearts to stay with us. Our movement and passing was top-class, that’s how I like to see us play. That’s how we try to play. The first half couldn’t have gone better. We played with an open team and Niko Krajcar was fantastic in midfield. He never plays there. Usually I play him off the left or in behind the front. But he started in a central position and joined up with Rafa well. He was outstanding.”
Without saying Scottish football is miles behind England, Redknapp respectfully outlined the difficulties facing SPL clubs trying to compete with their southern counterparts. “It’s difficult, resources are compeletely different,” he continued. “It is a different level now for sure. I don’t want to be disrespectful to Scottish football but there is a big gulf and it’s plain for everybody to see now. Every great club had great players from Scotland in it when I played but it’s changed an awful lot now. There’s not many great Scottish players around in all honesty.
“I’ve watched Scottish football, I don’t miss a game if it’s on TV. I’ve seen good games but there’s a difference. Look at the money the players earn in the Premier League and the transfer fees. There’s got to be a gulf, hasn’t there?
There certainly was last night. Hearts came a distant second to a team in a different stratosphere, where money talks. Big money.
Redknapp admitted he will blood a number of younger players in next week’s second leg at White Hart Lane. That was about the only bit of relief Hearts got all evening.