Considering their two-goal deficit after 34 minutes, Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 home draw with Basel on Thursday should be considered at least a partial success. But with a big league match approaching and Gareth Bale being stretchered off the pitch in the closing stages (per The Guardian), such a hard-fought, high-stress contest wasn’t exactly what Spurs needed.
For neutrals, though, the action was altogether compelling. The match, a Europa League quarterfinal first leg at White Hart Lane, was a high-octane distillation of excitement and physical commitment. The teams combined for 31 shots (13 on target), nine saves and 22 fouls. Then, of course, the end featured the most dramatic development of all: Bale's injury.
Not that Spurs are new to the drama. But until word emerges about the extent of the damage to Bale's ankle, they face a period of uncertainty at an unfortunate time in the season.
Andre Villas-Boas on Gareth Bale: "At the moment there is a lot of pain, but hopefully not bad as could have been." (via @conormcnamaraie)— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) April 4, 2013
Tottenham managed a narrow escape last round, losing 4-1 at Inter after extra time. The grueling, 120-minute test followed a 3-0 win on home turf in the first leg and demonstrated some of Spurs' troubles without the influential Bale, who was suspended.
It was the second in a three-match skid that saw Spurs lose ground to rivals Arsenal and Chelsea in the race for Champions League football, but after a win at Swansea over the weekend, the ship seemed to have been steadied.
Bale returned to the lineup for the Basel match, and Aaron Lennon started alongside him in midfield, only to limp off in the first half with what appeared to be another hamstring injury. Kyle Walker was suspended and Jermain Defoe injured for Andre Villas-Boas' side, which now faces a league match at home to sixth-placed Everton on Sunday.
The visitors found their footing first and nearly scored in the opening exchanges. Fabian Schär, Marco Streller and Markus Steinhöfer missed chances in quick succession, and even with a bunch of new faces in the squad, it was easy to see how Basel became one of the surprise packages of last season's Champions League.
In their European trip to England last season, Basel drew 3-3 with mighty Manchester United, effectively eliminating the Red Devils from the group stage. Considering Basel's early supremacy, another surprise seemed more than possible.
But Tottenham responded soon after. Bale's free kick trickled through the wall only to be saved by Yann Sommer with Benoit Assou-Ekotto lurking nearby. Moments later, Lewis Holtby teed up Bale, whose shot rolled well wide.
After Lennon limped off injured, Kyle Naughton nearly picked out the far corner with a long shot. But it was Basel that scored first, and moments later Tottenham's European hopes were in serious jeopardy.
Basel took the lead in impressive fashion, converting after a swift move down the pitch in the 30th minute. Streller received a cross in the middle with his back to the goal, turned expertly and hit the post with his shot. Valentin Stocker followed the play and pounded home the rebound. Four minutes later, Fabian Frei punished the home side's poor defending with a pinpoint header.
Spurs looked shell-shocked, and it was nearly 3-0 moments later when Stocker chipped just wide of the post past keeper Brad Friedel. Crucially, though, Tottenham pulled one back five minutes before the break through Emmanuel Adebayor. The hosts hardly deserved it, but the goal galvanized all the same.
With hope renewed, Tottenham streamed forward. Gylfi Sigurdsson picked out Holtby with a slide-rule through ball, and though Holtby fell in the box, Scott Parker was on hand to shoot on a nearly open net. But Parker's shot went inches wide, deflected off the prone Holtby.
For the first 45 minutes, Bale was uncharacteristically unable to influence the match. Unlike so often this season, Bale was ineffective in his central role. Instead, Moussa Dembele was Spurs' most influential performer.
(Stats and graphic via FourFourTwo Stats Zone app.)
The excitement continued after the break. Naughton nearly scored a highlight-reel goal from long distance moments before Sigurdsson equalized with a looping, deflected shot. Basel's Mohamed Salah then blazed one over the bar when in on goal as the teams produced seemingly a chance per minute.
Clint Dempsey replaced Holtby in the 63rd minute, and with Dempsey's introduction, Villas-Boas moved Bale out to the left in an effort to bring the Welshman more touches. The desired outcome—a recurrence of some of the match-winning magic Bale has produced at times this season—never came.
Instead, Sigurdsson's equalizer was destined to be the game's final twist, and Spurs were left with work to do next week in the second leg in Switzerland. First, though, it's back to the league for a match that holds perhaps even more importance.
As Bale left the pitch on a stretcher in Thursday's final moments, Villas-Boas couldn't help but show genuine concern. Between now and Sunday, that concern could turn into a serious worry.