Something unforeseen happened just shy of 50 minutes into Tottenham's opening match of the season against newly promoted Crystal Palace on Sunday. Referee Mark Clattenburg blew his whistle, pointed to the penalty spot, and allowed a Spurs player to take a free kick at goal. The television commentators referred to this as a "penalty."
Penalties are nothing unusual in the game of soccer -- unless you've been following Tottenham of late. Spurs were one of two Premier League clubs, along with Swansea City, to not have a single penalty awarded to them last season. It was the first time in eight years any club had gone an entire season in the league without taking a penalty kick. More improbably, Spurs managed this dubious feat despite having the best player in the league in the freakishly talented Gareth Bale, who routinely terrorized opponents both in and out of the 18-yard box. Even when Bale, who swept all the player of the season awards in the Premier League, was clearly fouled (as he was here with a two-handed tackle from behind in the box), referees were inclined instead to issue him a yellow card for "simulation" (as he received on that same play).
Meanwhile, Spurs' North London rivals Arsenal, whom Tottenham finished just one point behind in the race for Champions League qualification, got its share of soft calls last season, such as this one courtesy of Best Actor of the Year nominee Santi Cazorla. That bit of thespian innovation inspired outspoken Arsenal supporter Piers Morgan to tweet at his fellow fans: "Stop defending him, Gooners. It was a total disgrace."
In a season in which a single goal could have made all the difference in a top four finish -- with its ensuing windfall of Champions League money and player recruitment on the transfer market -- such statistical outliers cannot be shrugged off. Hence, when striker Roberto Soldado stepped up and buried his penalty kick into the inside left netting, Spurs fans could be forgiven for feeling a sense of vindication amid their celebration. It would prove to be the only goal of the match as Tottenham left Selhurst Park with three points in the league table.
Bale was unavailable for selection by Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas on Sunday due, officially, to an injured foot. Many have commented his injury is conveniently timed given the ceaseless speculation regarding negotiations, which may or may not be occurring, for a rumored transfer to La Liga powerhouse Real Madrid, who may or not be able to afford him. While Bale's absense might have put a damper on the proceedings in seasons past, Spurs fans had much to be excited about entering the game due to the presence of three new names in the starting lineup: former Dutch league left-winger Nacer Chadli, Brazilian national team midfielder Paulinho, and Soldado, the imported striker from Spain. As expected, Spurs dominated play against Crystal Palace but were unable to break through until Crystal Palace defender Dean Moxey handled winger Aaron Lennon's cross in the box and Clattenburg awarded a penalty. It was an unlucky moment for Moxey, who had a strong game otherwise, but a nice opportunity for Soldado to open his Premier League account.
Spurs goalie Hugo Lloris then stepped up aggressively during a number of tense moments to preserve the 1-0 win and, for my money, was the Man of the Match. Chadli, Paulinho, and defensive midfielder Etienne Capoue, another new acquisition from Europe, all looked to be imposing presences across the middle of the pitch. If not for his spending the first 58 minutes on the bench, the former Le Ligue star Capoue might have drawn serious MOTM consideration, as he came on to make a game-high six interceptions and completed 90% of his passes, matching Paulinho's rate. Midfielder Mousa Dembele, for his part, had a game-best 97% completion rate before giving way to Capoue. Tottenham, though, still seem to lack some creativity in the final third, a familiar complaint that fans hope to see rectified with perhaps one more key signing before the close of the transfer window.
Meanwhile, Spurs fans experienced a sense of Schadenfreude the day before as Arsenal lost at home to the nearly-relegated Aston Villa 3-1, when Laurent Koscielny was unlucky to yield a penalty on a controversial call. The penalty produced a goal from Villa front man Christian Benteke and earned Koscielny the first of two yellows that got him sent off, leaving the Gunners to play the remaining stages a man down. A breakaway goal from Villa iced it, leaving fans at the Emirates to start venting their frustrations at long-standing manager Arsene Wenger.
Soft penalties going against Arsenal? A penalty for Spurs? What is this new world order?
With new managers taking the helm for three of last season's top four clubs (Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea) and fans of the fourth already hating theirs, the race for top-four Champions League qualification, if not the Premier League title itself, seems wide open this season.
These are exciting times for Spurs fans. Here in America, NBC Sports has bought into the zeitgeist with a recent Times Square billboard, subway signage, and SNL's Jason Sudeikis's brief tenure with the club. Heck, the sports world even went into a tizzy when a Major League Soccer team was able to pry a part-time starter from Tottenham.
Next up for Spurs: a Europa League match away to Dinamo Tbilisi on Thursday, then Premier League play resumes with a home match on Sunday against fellow Europa League competitors Swansea City.