06 November 2006

Rebirth of Slick

Two of the biggest disappointments of the season so far have been two underachieving London teams. Tottenham and West Ham were both supposed to improve on the excellent seasons they had last year, and yet, as of last week, both sat in the bottom third of the league table.

Tottenham was unlucky to finish fifth last season, beaten to fourth place on the last day under what Spurs considers dubious circumstances by Arsenal. West Ham, widely thought likely to drop back down to the Championship, finished 9th and made it to the FA Cup Final. Both were expected to compete for European places this season; Tottenham could and should have qualified for the Champions League last season and only seemingly improved over the off-season, and West Ham, especially after signing Argentinean wunderkinds Tevez and Mascherano, looked likely to compete for a top six place as well.

However, both teams had probably the worst start to the season they could have imagined. Despite spending £10m+ on Dimitar Berbatov, while already having Jermain Defoe and Robbie Keane on the roster, Tottenham scored 2 league goals in all of August and September. West Ham’s troubles started before the campaign with the loss of Dean Ashton, but the signings of Tevez and Mascherano only further upset the balance of the team, and they went on to lose 6 of their first 9 games. Neither side looked capable of repeating last season’s accomplishments. Neither even looked capable of finishing in the top half of the table.

That all seemingly changed Saturday and Sunday. Both Tottenham and West Ham were expected to lose heavily in games against Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. West Ham beat Arsenal 1-0, thanks to a last minute goal from Marlon Harewood after a cagey match where the Hammers did well to keep the Gunners off the scoresheet. Tottenham, who hadn’t beaten Chelsea in the league since 1990, came back to win 2-1 after going a goal down in the first 15 minutes. Spurs were especially impressive, playing their best game of the season by far; Lennon, Keane and King were all simply outstanding. Beating Arsenal or Chelsea is always an accomplishment, for any team. It’s multiplied by the fact that neither Tottenham nor West Ham had looked coherent, disciplined, or capable of beating the best teams in the league until last weekend.

The next month will be crucial for both sides, and where we really find out if they’ve solved some of their problems.

Tottenham: Reading (a), Blackburn (a), Wigan (h), Arsenal (a)
West Ham: Boro (a), Chelsea (a), Sheffield (h), Everton (a)

Both teams will look at that schedule and see games they should be winning. But both have some tough trips coming up. West Ham’s game against Chelsea and Tottenham’s against Arsenal will be where we can truly see if these teams have turned a corner, or if their big wins were simply out of the ordinary upsets.

Maybe I am reading too much into last weekend. Both Tottenham and West Ham were at home. London derbies are always contentious, and frequently have surprising results. Arsenal, while more impressive recently than at the start the season, has still been wasteful in front of goal. Chelsea has already been beaten once this season, at Boro, in a similar fashion to the loss at White Hart Lane; they went up a goal early, but ended up losing 2-1.

The true test will be if they can continue to progress over the next month. But both camps will undoubtedly be happy at the improvement their teams displayed in two of the toughest matches they’ll face all season.

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