Crouch strikes - and Spurs fans awake to new Champions League era

Manchester City 0 Tottenham Hotspur 1 By Ben Pearce at Eastlands TOTTENHAM Hotspur awake to a new era this morning after finally achieving their impossible dream – finishing in the top four of the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League for

Manchester City 0

Tottenham Hotspur 1

By Ben Pearce at Eastlands

TOTTENHAM Hotspur awake to a new era this morning after finally achieving their impossible dream - finishing in the top four of the Premier League and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time ever.


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Peter Crouch's 82nd-minute winner gave Spurs the victory they needed to escape the desperate clutches of Manchester City in the thrilling end-of-season finale, completing their epic mission before the final day of the campaign on Sunday.

The nervy 1-0 win means the Lilywhites will play in Europe's elite domestic competition for the first time since 1961, when the tournament was called the European Cup.

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The boo-boys are quick to point out that, in fact, Harry Redknapp and his players have only guaranteed themselves a place in the third qualifying round and - assuming they fail to over-haul Arsenal on Sunday - face a two-legged knock-out tie before they can enter the group stage.

But the small print certainly didn't matter to the delirious travelling fans who made the trip to Eastlands last night, and it didn't seem to concern the ecstatic Spurs substitutes who stood in restless agitation on the touch-lines throughout the four minutes of extra-time, screaming at the referee to blow his whistle, before flooding onto the pitch.

The joy was unconfined. Heurelho Gomes sat sniffling in the corridor outside the dressing room, taking a moment away from the wild celebrations, while Redknapp's post-match TV interview was interrupted when his players tipped a bucket of water over his head. The manager would probably have preferred to be presented with a bottle of wine, but he deserved his moment in the spotlight.

Spurs went to the City of Manchester Stadium knowing that, while victory would finish the job on the night, a draw would keep their fate in their own hands on the final day. Defeat, meanwhile, would spell disaster.

The temptation to opt for caution in front of City's fans must have been acute, but Redknapp went for glory: 4-4-2, with two strikers and two wingers, Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon starting a league game in tandem for the first time in 16 months, since January 2009.

His positive approach ensured that this truly was a Clash of the Titans, the Champions League showdown that everyone had wanted to see, a pivotal top-four decider that lived up to all the hype.

Redknapp got his line-up spot-on, sticking with the system that had beaten Arsenal, Chelsea and Bolton at White Hart Lane, leaving Wilson Palacios on the bench for the second game in succession, and giving Bale the more advanced role on the left flank ahead of Benoit Assou-Ekotto.

Younes Kaboul kept his place at right-back, Gomes and Ledley King were both fit to start and Crouch was named in the starting XI for the first time since the FA Cup semi-final defeat against Portsmouth.

It was the same strike force that had demolished City in the 3-0 win at White Hart Lane back in December, and Redknapp had clearly remembered that the Eastlands outfit had struggled to deal with Crouch's height that night. So it proved again.

Tevez drew first blood, forcing Gomes and Spurs' rearguard into action on two occasions in the opening 10 minutes, but it was Crouch who came closest after 18 minutes, heading Bale's corner against the outside of the post, while Bale's subsequent 10-yard effort was blocked.

Two minutes later King rose above Gareth Barry to head another Bale corner past City's loan keeper Marton Fulop - illegally, according to referee Steve Bennett.

Back came City and Gomes was twice called into action, diving to save a 20-yard snapshot from Adam Johnson and then clawing the ball out of his bottom corner at full stretch to rescue Bale, who had inadvertently deflected a cross goalwards.

Spurs responded and, six minutes before the break, their tactics combined perfectly at every level. Tom Huddlestone spread the ball wide to Lennon on the right. The young winger jinked past Wayne Bridge and lofted the ball to the back post for Crouch, who leapt above his man and nodded the ball down to Bale - whose volley missed Fulop's post by an inch.

City threatened again either side of half-time, most notably when Barry appeared at the back post to knock a cross down into the goalmouth. Fortunately Michael Dawson was the first to arrive.

Six minutes later it was the home side who had the lucky reprieve. Bale flicked the ball over the defence for Jermain Defoe but his volley was well saved by Fulop, who got fingertips on the ball and then watched as it dropped inches wide of the post.

Moments later Tottenham hearts were in their mouths as the referee called Huddlestone over to discuss an apparent stamp aimed at Nigel de Jong. Fortunately the card was yellow, and Spurs rode their luck again moments later when Emmanual Adebayor headed Craig Bellamy's cross over the bar from a good position.

Spurs' turn: With just under 20 minutes remaining, Benoit Assou-Ekotto scampered up the left flank and delivered the ball across the area, watching in agony as both Defoe and Crouch slid in but failed to make contact in front of a gaping goal.

But that was nothing compared to the chance that went begging in the 78th minute as Bale delivered the ball on a plate for Crouch, whose header struck Fulop's leg, flew behind the keeper but stayed the right side of the line.

It was hard to avoid memories of Wembley, and the chances that Crouch squandered before Portsmouth broke Tottenham hearts at the death. But there was be no repeat.

Four minutes later Kaboul charged up the right and hammered the ball at Fulop's head from a tight angle. The ex-Spurs stopper reacted instinctively to block, but left the ball in the danger zone, and Crouch was there first, heading the ball into the back of the net - right in front of the rapturous Tottenham fans. There were eight minutes left but the kitchen sink never came, and suddenly it was over.

It is impossible to know what this victory will mean for Tottenham's future, and whether this really is the first chapter in a new volume of Spurs legend. But there was only ever going to be one way to find out. And here we are.

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