The first outings for Roberto Soldado and Paulinho -- along with Gareth Bale's ongoing "will he go or will he stay" saga -- drew the biggest headlines for Tottenham Hotspur's final friendly against Espanyol before their Premier League season kicks off at Crystal Palace on Sunday. But for many Tottenham fans, the two most pleasing highlights of the afternoon were the return of Younes Kaboul and Sandro. Neither looked completely match fit, but their mere presence in a Spurs shirt was enough for now.
Much has been written about Spurs' failure to capture a Champions League place last season, with most fingers pointing toward the absence of an in-form striker as the guilty party. But you can make an equally good case that the injuries to Kaboul and Sandro were decisive factors in Spurs finishing outside the top four places.
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Kaboul didn't get off to the best of starts with Spurs -- he was remembered as much for a series of errors as his last-minute equaliser against Aston Villa in a 4-4 draw in October 2007 -- and was shipped out to Portsmouth in 2008. Since his return in 2010, he has grown into one of Spurs' most reliable defenders: fast, strong, good in the air, and with a tireless work rate. Spurs had been counting on Kaboul to be at the centre of the defence alongside Jan Vertonghen last season. The injury he suffered in the season's first game at Newcastle put paid to that. Kaboul was sidelined the rest of the season, and Andre Villas-Boas was never able to pick his best two central defenders alongside each other.
Michael Dawson and Stephen Caulker both filled in -- more than adequately at times -- but neither player was a match for a fully fit and in-form Kaboul as they each made too many misjudgments that gave away needless goals. It's not too fanciful to imagine that if Kaboul had been fit for even two-thirds of the season and his partnership with Vertonghen was given time to develop, Spurs would have drawn a few of the games they lost and won a few of those they drew.
Sandro had a similarly low-key start at White Hart Lane. He arrived, with some fanfare, from Internacional in 2010. However, then-manager Harry Redknapp didn't appear to rate Sandro that highly; at least, the manager didn't give Sandro many first-team starts. But when he did get an outing, he invariably impressed, both with his fitness and his commitment. Sandro made his debut in one of Spurs' most dismal displays of the 2010-11 season: a 4-1 home defeat to Arsenal in the Carling Cup, which ended with Aaron Lennon playing right back -- but Sandro was one of the few to play the full 120 minutes (the game went to extra time, believe it or not) with a sense of urgency and pride. He was the only Spurs player to both tackle back and keep pressing forward in search of a consolation goal right until the final whistle.
In his second season under Redknapp, Sandro began to get more first-team appearances, but under Villas-Boas the player fulfilled his potential. Maybe it was a coincidence or maybe Sandro gained confidence from knowing he now had a manager who backed him; whichever it was, Sandro and Moussa Dembele developed a great understanding in the centre of midfield. They trusted each other implicitly. More often than not, Dembele would push forward, leaving the Brazilian to watch his back, but from time to time they would reverse roles with equal impact. Together they were fast, strong and fearless. No opposition fancied their chances against them.
When Sandro went off injured against QPR last season, it wasn't immediately obvious how big a loss his absence would be. For one thing, he walked off the pitch, leading everyone to imagine the injury was not that serious; for another, Scott Parker was himself returning from injury and it seemed he might be the ideal replacement. He wasn't. Parker never recovered his form of the previous season and took to running around in circles. And we had all underestimated just what a big on-field presence Sandro had become and how critical he was to Spurs' success.
Yes, the thought of Soldado leading the line up front is eye-catching, as is the prospect of Bale staying. But it's the prospect of Kaboul and Vertonghen at the heart of the defence, along with Paulinho, Sandro and Dembele at the heart of the midfield, that is making many fans believe this could be the season Spurs can be a serious contender for a top-three place.