Tottenham v Manchester City: Spurs a pale shadow in absence of Gareth Bale
The jibe that Tottenham Hotspur are a one-man team has never quite gone away this season, and it reverberates with greater significance now the absence of Gareth Bale has coincided with a slump that could derail their season.
They have won just one of their last seven games in all competitions, a run that has seen them eliminated from the Europa League by Basel and slip out of the Premier League's top four - although Arsenal have played more games than them.
There is some truth to the barb. It is not a perfect measure of influence but Bale has scored 17 goals and provided assists for three of the 55 goals Spurs have scored in the league this season - a direct involvement in 36 per cent of their goals tally.
By way of comparison, Luis Suarez has had a direct involvement in 44 per cent of Liverpool's goals, Robin van Persie in 39 per cent of Manchester United's, Juan Mata in 33 per cent of Chelsea's, Michu in 44 per cent of Swansea City's and Christian Benteke in 53 per cent of Aston Villa's.
Obviously players have influence beyond goals and assists - at times an influence that is almost impossible to capture in numbers, as when, for instance, an opposing team is so terrified of Bale that they focus on him and neglect other forwards.
But given the easy stereotype of Spurs this season has been of Bale shimmying through challenges and lashing in preposterous shots every week, those figures are indicative of the fact that he might not be quite so influential as many people think.
Equally, one of Tottenham's real strengths this season has been their pressing and a defence that has yielded just 9.8 shots per game - fewer than any other team; Bale plays only a minor part in that.
And then there is the matter of Bale starting four of the seven matches that comprise this present slump, suffering his ankle injury late on in the draw against Basel. It would be ludicrous to pretend that his absence does not hurt Spurs but equally this downturn in form began while he was still in the side.
Aaron Lennon was also injured in the home game against Basel, while Jermain Defoe has been plagued by a muscle injury that has restricted his involvement over the past month.
Losing all three at the same time has left Spurs desperately short of pace in the final third and that has allowed opposing defences to play a higher line against them.
Andre Villas-Boas, the Tottenham manager, has been bullish about the chances of all three returning today against Manchester City.
"There has been a good recovery from Defoe, he's trained with the team all week," the Portuguese said.
"Gazza [Bale] has also been training - just the last two days with the team but on his own since the beginning of the week. Lennon has been recovering progressively, there is still a chance.
"He hasn't trained with the team yet, there is one more training session to go. All of them are in with a chance of making the selection."
When the sides met in November, City came from behind to win after Roberto Mancini switched from 4-2-3-1 to 3-4-1-2 just before the hour, using his wing-backs to drive Spurs' wide players back while overmanning in the centre.
Mancini dabbled with a back three fairly frequently early in the season; this was one of the few occasions on which it worked.
Given how well his side has been playing of late, though, and given the uncertainty over the fitness of Spurs wingers Bale and Lennon, it is unlikely Mancini will change from 4-2-3-1, at least not from the start.
Sergio Aguero and David Silva are doubts with hamstring problems but if they are ruled out, Mancini can turn to Edin Dzeko, who has scored five goals in 173 minutes of action against Tottenham.
Villas-Boas spoke of the "fear factor" Bale can induce in City if he is fit, but the bigger issue seems to be Spurs' own fear of success as they look to finish above Arsenal for the first time in 18 years.
Having his pacey front runners back is a boost, clearly, but the Spurs wobble seems as much to do with mental strength as it does with personnel.
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Published: April 20, 2013 04:00 AM