Basel can welcome back Marcelo Diaz, Park Joo-Ho and Phillip Degen from suspension and all three are likely to come in for the second leg against Tottenham. Murat Yakin will have to choose between the 4-2-3-1 shape that succeeded in securing an impressive 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane or reverting to a more conservative 4-1-2-3 shape.
In contrast Tottenham are currently struggling with injuries, most notably to star man Gareth Bale, although the loss of Aaron Lennon is equally destabilising. Andre Villas-Boas’ lack of wide options means a narrow trio of Gylfi Sigurdsson, Lewis Holtby and Clint Dempsey behind Emmanuel Adebayor. In defence Villas-Boas has a dilemma – does he persist with selecting Benoit Assou-Ekotto at full back, when Jan Vertonghen has looked so dangerous going forward in the Premier League or leave the Belgian at centre back alongside Michael Dawson? A similar problem may be in goal. Villas-Boas has remained loyal to Brad Friedel through the Europa League campaign, but as Tottenham reach the business end of the competition there must be an urge to start selecting the impressive Hugo Lloris.
Anybody who remembers Basel’s impressive displays in the Champions League against Manchester United a few years ago will understand what an accomplished side they are, and Tottenham face a tough ask if they are to advance.
While all the focus is on Gareth Bale’s injury, the reality is the loss of Aaron Lennon in addition to the absent Welshman has removed Villas-Boas’ main attacking weapons. Tottenham’s successful campaign has been built around the creative wing play of both players, but without them Villas-Boas lacks natural replacements. Sigurdsson, Holtby and Dempsey are all fine players, but operate in more central areas and lack the explosive pace that made Tottenham such a threat on the break.
In Bale and Lennon’s absence Tottenham are far more narrow and look to create chances in central areas. Unfortunately this plays into the hands of their opponents, who will have a solid three-man midfield protecting their back four. Therefore there will be a greater emphasis on full backs Assou-Ekotto and Kyle Walker stretching the play and providing dangerous crosses into the box.
Since Sandro’s injury coincided with Parker’s return to fitness a few months back, many onlookers believed that Villas-Boas was being reunited with his first choice midfield. In reality Parker has done little to suggest that he will hold down a place upon the Brazilian’s return. The English midfielder’s lack of positional discipline has robbed Tottenham of their early season fluency, when Moussa Dembele felt able to make forward runs without worrying about leaving spaces behind. Today it is Parker that is the more likely of the midfield duo to burst forward in support of an attack.
Considering the vast difference in technical quality between Dembele and Parker, coupled with the fact that until last season the Belgian was an attacking midfield, this situation is a tactical failure. If Tottenham are to threaten Basel without their wingers, Dembele will be a major creative asset, but only if he can be sure that Parker will remain stationed behind him. Thus far Villas-Boas has seemed unable to dissuade Parker from recklessly vacating his space, and Dembele appears remarkably willing to cover for his partner, but in such an important game it is vital that the pair stick to what they do best: Parker tackling, Dembele attacking.
With Basel playing with a midfield triangle and Tottenham lacking wingers there are likely to be up to eight players contesting the midfield zone, with the visitors possessing a 5-3 advantage. This would usually put them in good shape to dominate possession, except that both Sigurdsson and Dempsey are largely direct players intent on forward runs into the penalty area, whilst Yakin has a team filled with players comfortable in possession. At times in the first leg Basel’s interplay between their midfield and forward line was excellent, so to retain possession in a similar manor Tottenham need Sigurdsson and Dempsey to have a bit more patience.
Holtby is also due a big game. The German playmaker was widely lauded prior to his move from Schalke, but thus far has lived in the shadow of Bale as he has looked to adapt to his new team and the Premier League. This is completely understandable, but the quick technical football of Basel should be similar to that which he was accustomed in the Bundesliga, and with Bale missing Villas-Boas will be desperate for his January signing to justify the extra expenditure required to secure his services prior to the summer.
Even with a fully fit squad and no other distractions, this would be a difficult challenge for Villas-Boas new and inexperienced side. Nevertheless, with the battle for the Champions League lurking in the background, Tottenham will want to give a good account of themselves. Their manager has a fine Europa League pedigree having won it with Porto, and the ambitious Portuguese is likely to be motivated by the chance to win a trophy in his first season.
For Basel, Yakin will see this as a chance to achieve European glory. Having taken over from Heiko Vogel, victory in the Europa League would culminate a successful few years that has seen the construction of an impressive side. They will believe that they can overcome Tottenham, and probably have the ability to do so.