With the Masters well under way, the first of golf's four major championships is preparing for a weekend full of the usual combination of gripping storylines and sporting excellence—all taking place amidst one of sport's most evocative settings. At the same time as Day 1 in Augusta, Switzerland's decidedly more modern St. Jakob-Park stadium was playing host to competitive drama of a different variety.
After surviving 120 minutes of football played in torrential rain, FC Basel finally got the better of Tottenham Hotspur in their Europa League quarterfinal. If the environment and furious, exhausting action were the antithesis of its concurrent golfing counterpart, the circumstances of the concluding, nerve-shredding penalty shootout will have bore more than passing resemblance to the do-or-die proceedings ahead of those competing on the greens of Georgia.
The immediate reality of Tottenham's loss is the end of their hopes of success in the Europa League this season, a trophy for which Andre Villas-Boas and his side have expended considerable time and energy pursuing. In addition, it has questioned their ability to thrive without their star man, Gareth Bale.
Bale (and other injured potential contributors like Aaron Lennon and Jermain Defoe) was certainly missed—just as he was away at Inter Milan last month, too. How could a player who has scored 29 times, set up a further nine goals and been Spurs' main driving force this season not have been missed?
The Welshman is a difference-maker, no doubt about it. Lionel Messi outlined the importance of such a player to even a team as chock full of talent as Barcelona, with the Argentinian's arrival in their Champions League quarterfinal proving the catalyst for their win over Paris Saint-Germain.
Spurs could have done with Bale's penetrating runs in opening the many paths to goal that Basel so successfully shut off. His long-range shooting may have proved more accurate than some of his teammate's attempts, and if nothing else, his threat demands attention from the opposition—with the possible bonus of freeing others.
It should not be forgotten the much talked-about attacker was present in the first-leg against Basel yet was unable to make an impact—after all, even he is not immune to the whims of form. Murat Yakin's team again pressured their opponents in much the same way as they did at White Hart Lane, reaping the benefits of forcing them into costly errors with their two goals. They were going to give Spurs a game regardless of whom Villas-Boas fielded.
Yet Tottenham's overall display accentuated aspects of their character and to a slightly lesser extent their quality, which showed they are capable of living without Bale—at least occasionally.
Clint Dempsey reiterated his value as a grabber of vital goals with the brace that saw Spurs into extra time at 2-2. If the American's first had been a rare example of Spurs' effectiveness when utilizing their passing game, the second came about thanks to a more thorough application of those old-fashioned but still effective ideals of passing and moving.
The introduction of Tom Carroll and then Tom Huddlestone gave Spurs the right practitioners to impose this and open up Basel. The much-needed variety they instilled helped to free Dempsey, Emmanuel Adebayor, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Lewis Holtby into a more productive use of the ball.
It was not a wholesale success, but in the absence of Spurs' speed merchants Bale and Lennon, it was their primary hope of taking the game to Basel. They did so for a time, and if not for the dismissal of Jan Vertonghen, they may indeed have hurt the Swiss even further in the second half.
Instead, with Huddlestone covering in central defense, the North Londoners were put on the back foot for most of the game's remainder. If the final result proved these efforts to be in vain, the spirit they showed in getting that far was most commendable.
Michael Dawson exemplified the leadership that had been sorely lacking in recent European encounters, making every challenge he could even as his legs threatened to give up on him. Sigurdsson and Kyle Walker were among those who also ran till they could no longer, while Carroll rose to the occasion in a most impressive fashion. Even Adebayor looked interested for the second game in a row.
The Togo international's disastrous penalty was a most unfortunate ending for him, as was the shootout in general for Tottenham. Here at the death was a reminder of why genuine match-winners like Bale (as he has proved himself so often this season) hold such value. Yet a team can only take to the field with the players available.
Spurs will be keen for Bale to be back for their next fixture against Manchester City on Sunday, 21 April. Villas-Boas will not want to go without him in the lineup any longer than necessary, but his side showed for a game or two that they can get by without him when blending the right mix of heart and creativity.