Sporting Lisbon beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-3 on a freezing Wednesday night at Leyton Orient’s Matchroom Stadium, to progress to the semi-finals of this year’s NextGen Series, which will take place in the no doubt warmer climes of Lake Como.
It was a brave effort from Tottenham’s youngsters, who in truth were second best for much of the evening and were fortunate to force extra time with a 95th minute equaliser (in the process exposing the extremities of the 685 spectators to further risk of frostbite).
There were some notable performances which warmed the cockles, the best of which came from Sporting’s Under-17 Cameroon international midfielder Fabrice Fokobo, who capped a fine display with a 45-yard volley to seal the win. However, there were a handful of Spurs performances which also promised much for the future, not least of which was that of 18-year-old midfielder and French under-19 international Nabil Bentaleb.
The young Frenchman of Algerian origin, who was released from Lille as a 15-year-old and who joined Spurs via Mouscron, Dunkerque and a trial at Birmingham, began the game as a holding midfielder, playing behind Tottenham’s own Portuguese player, Ruben Lameiras. Within two minutes he had already shown his ease on the ball, showing very quick footwork to get out of a tight spot on the lefthand touchline – all the more impressive since it was done on a particularly bad patch of a particularly bad pitch.
Clearly comfortable with both feet, although favouring his left, Bentaleb continued to show the assuredness on the ball for which he is beginning to gain a reputation. His control and first touch in particular were impressive and he showed a tidy range of distribution, both long and short, as well as good vision. More close control allowed him to begin an attack which ended with Gareth Bale lookalike Kenny McEvoy shooting at the keeper, whilst a particular highlight was a Zidanesque spin and instantaneous pass which almost sent Coulthirst through on goal, late in the first half. Due to his holding role, he didn’t venture too far forward too often, his one half-chance, with the score at 1-1, scuffed tamely wide.
Always on the move, he showed great enthusiasm throughout. However, he struggled to impose himself on the game as Sporting’s attacking play was at times too quick for the Spurs midfield to handle. He rarely seemed keen to put in a tackle and, midway through the first half, he was slow to close down Ricardo Esgaio on the right wing, giving him the time and space to pick out Betinho to put the visitors 2-1 up.
As the second half continued in the same vein, his frustrations got the better of him once or twice, with a few ostentatious Gallic shrugs and a petulant late kick which earned him a telling-off from the referee. However, he also showed good team spirit at all times: constantly talking to team-mates, he was also the first player to go to goalkeeper Vigouroux – not French, despite the name – and put an arm around him after yet another mistake led to a Sporting penalty (the keeper had a bit of a cauchemar, at fault for four goals). Although already substituted, he also joined in the mass Spurs bundle after their late normal-time equaliser.
Pushed forward after Lameiras was substituted, Bentaleb unfortunately only had five minutes to impress in the number 10 position before being replaced himself, although in that time alone he began two promising attacks.
Overall, Bentaleb’s performance suggested that he is not cut out for the rough and tumble of the holding midfielder position, but has more than enough skill and ability to develop into an excellent playmaker. With his tall, strong physique and his ease on the ball, as well as his north African roots, his seemingly shortish temper and the Spurs connection, comparisons with Adel Taraabt are too tempting to resist (obviously another tall, moody, skilful Algerian Frenchman springs to mind but let’s not get over-excited yet). If he is given the opportunity to develop as a number 10, supported by a strong youth set-up and the advice of a nucleus of experienced compatriots in Lloris, Gallas and Kaboul, there is no reason at all why Nabil Bentaleb cannot establish himself in Tottenham’s first team in the near future.