Another evening, and yet another Tottenham Hotspur match that features Gareth Bale as the significant talking point following the final whistle. Anybody who has read or heard my thoughts on the subject at any point in the past is aware that I have never given Bale a pass when he has either gone to ground far too easily or has rolled around for several seconds like he had been shot before making a miraculous recovery that could lead your most cynical atheist wondering if there is a higher power out there. Thursday's Spurs vs. Inter Europa League match, one thoroughly dominated by a Tottenham side that probably should have won by more than the 3-0 scoreline, has left me asking a somewhat familiar question:
Is there a time when a dive really isn't a dive?
Bale wasted little time in finding the back of the net on Thursday. At the five and a half minute mark, Gylfi Sigurdsson, who had the best 70 consecutive minutes of his young Tottenham career before being subbed off for Lewis Holtby, swung a ball from the left wing into the penalty area. Some lazy man-marking allowed Bale to get between two would-be defenders before he propelled himself above everybody else and headed the ball into the far corner of the net. The Welshman has now scored 21 goals across all competitions, and he has netted ten tallies in Tottenham's last eight matches.
Then came the 14th minute, when Bale reignited a conversation that I had hoped died a painful death at the end of 2012. A clever one-two involving Bale and Scott Parker resulted in Bale beating his marker and taking the ball into the right portion of the penalty area. Inter's Walter Gargano closed in on the Spurs star, who took one final touch before dragging his left foot back to ensure that contact would be made. Bale's plan worked, as the legs of the players did come together right before the Wales international flopped to the ground.
Referee Antonio Miguel Mateu Lahoz had none of it, however, jogging right to the fallen Bale before displaying a yellow card. Bale protested, insisting that he had been clipped. The referee remained silent while holding the yellow high and for all to see, and an unsatisfied Bale could do nothing but make his way toward the other end of the pitch.
Two fallacies in football are that there cannot be such contact in the box without the referee making a call in favor of either player, and that a player can't dive if his leg is "clipped." This particular booking was, as multiple Spurs supporters put it on Facebook and Twitter, merely proof that the referee was well aware of Bale's reputation heading into the match. If it's any other player, such as Sigurdsson, Jermain Defoe or even Clint Dempsey (who himself has been known to go to ground too easily), the ref is likely going to simply motion for both players to get up off the ground and allow play to continue.
I don't at all disagree with those who claim that Bale has earned himself a reputation for diving, and thus deserves no pity. Those people are right. This particular incident wasn't a dive in my eyes, but Bale has to realize that he is going to be seen as a guilty party just about every time something like this occurs because of his actions in the past.
What was first a potentially costly yellow could now be a blessing for both Bale and Spurs. Bale will miss next Thursday's leg in Italy due to yellow card accumulation, but that will likely hardly be a worry for manager Andre Villas-Boas. Inter looked like a side finished with this whole Europa League business from the game's first kick on Thursday night, and they only played anything resembling good football after Spurs let up in the closing minutes of both halves.
Bale getting some extra rest in between Premier League games against Liverpool and Fulham is only a good thing for a Spurs side seeking to win Europa League and also finish no lower than third in the EPL table. Even if Inter do decide next week that winning a European trophy could be fun, Tottenham shouldn't need their Player of the Year candidate on the pitch at the San Siro. Spurs should, exactly one week from the posting of this piece, still be marching on their way to Amsterdam.
Zac has been covering Tottenham Hotspur, Major League Soccer, RBNY, the USMNT and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.
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