LONDON (AP) — Tottenham's gamble of selling Gareth Bale to Real Madrid and using the proceeds of the world-record fee to bolster its squad with a slew of new, expensive players has backfired.
Badly. The evidence? Less a glance at the Premier League standings, more a scroll down Spurs' team sheet for Saturday's Premier League match against Chelsea. For one of their biggest games of the season against a rival they hadn't beaten away in 24 years, none of the seven players they splurged a total of about 110 million pounds ($180 million) on last year was selected in the starting XI.
No Brazil international Paulinho, who cost a then-club record 17 million pounds. No Spain striker Roberto Soldado, who eclipsed that fee when he arrived for 26 million pounds. The less said about Erik Lamela, on whom Spurs splashed out 30 million pounds but who has been a major flop this season and is currently out injured, the better.
Instead, Tottenham played three center backs in a four-man defense, had a right back playing in midfield and a winger roving across the frontline. Chelsea won 4-0, without even playing well. The result just about summed up Tottenham's chaotic season that has featured one-sided defeats of 6-0 and 5-1 to Manchester City, 5-0 at home to Liverpool and a change of manager when Andre Villas-Boas was replaced by a rookie, Tim Sherwood. Indeed, it's a wonder how they are still fifth in the standings, albeit with fading hopes of qualifying for next season's Champions League.
Meanwhile, Bale is beginning to hit his stride after a tough start to life in Madrid, scoring six goals in his last eight games for club and country and being branded "super-human" by an international colleague last week.
Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy backed up his reputation as the ultimate hard-nosed negotiator by forcing Madrid to part with 100 million euros (then $132 million) to sign Bale in August. But there must have been many times over the last few months when he wondered: What if?
What if he had played hard ball with Bale, ignored the eye-popping offer Madrid put on the table and kept the brilliant forward at White Hart Lane to the terms of his contract, which still had three years to run?
Some say Bale wouldn't have accepted that, and may have gone on strike. By giving Spurs the silent treatment while a deal was being negotiated, he certainly appeared to be heading that way. It could have been achieved, though — just look at Liverpool's dealings with Luis Suarez.
Suarez pushed for a move from Anfield, even giving newspaper interviews saying the club had reneged on an agreement that it would let him go if it didn't qualify for the Champions League. Liverpool's American owners didn't flinch. Suarez stayed and is now spearheading the second-place team's unlikely charge for the Premier League title.
Over at Old Trafford, Manchester United refused to even contemplate Wayne Rooney's departure amid interest from Chelsea. Not for sale at any price, was their consistent message. OK, United has had a wretched season but Rooney is the happiest he has been for some time, and even signed a new contract last month that is likely to see him finish his career at the club.
If Levy had denied Bale his move, after initial disgruntlement the winger would likely have knuckled down and helped Spurs challenge for the top four. Given the transition going on at United following Alex Ferguson's departure and the managerial changes at City and Chelsea, this was always going to be the season where the established "Big Four" of City, United, Arsenal and Chelsea could be broken up.
Liverpool has managed to do it. It could have been a Bale-led Tottenham. Instead, Spurs appear directionless. Attempts to gel the new players have failed and Sherwood, hired on an 18-month contract in December, doesn't know if he'll last beyond this summer.
After the Chelsea match, frustration got the better of him. He spoke about Tottenham having a "lack of characters," with too many players being "too nice to each other." "You need to show a bit more guts and not want to be someone's mate all the time," he said, before adding: "The club talks about fourth — wake up."
It seems all the progress made in the Harry Redknapp years from 2008-12 has been reversed. Redknapp was fired in June 2012 despite Tottenham having just finished fourth, and only missing out on Champions League qualification because Chelsea won the tournament against all the odds.
Since then, Spurs have been in a state of flux. Bale had been their shining light but with him gone and given the uncertain future of those brought in to replace him, who knows where they go next.