It has largely slipped under the radar that Tottenham Hotspur have played virtually the whole season so far without their No1 central defender and their player of the year from the last time out. They have also missed their first-choice left-back for all but three matches, their playmaker for eight and their most dynamic attacker for the past three.
André Villas-Boas, the manager, deserves credit for not banging on about the absentees as he has handled a transitional period in his new job and kept the club up where they want to be, in the Premier League's top four. But the appearance of Scott Parker, Tottenham's player of last season, as a late substitute in Sunday's 1-0 home win over Swansea City signalled a timely return of the cavalry.
Benoît Assou-Ekotto, the left-back who has not played since 1 September, has resumed full training after a knee problem and should be in contention for Saturday's visit of Stoke City, as should Gareth Bale, who felt his hamstring at the start of the month. Younès Kaboul, the club's best centre-half last season, has not played since the opening-day defeat at Newcastle United because of a knee injury that required surgery but he, too, is close to a comeback. Michael Dawson, the reserve central defender, is expected to be available for Stoke after hamstring trouble.
The picture is one of intense competition for places and of a squad ready to make a significant push. After Stoke, Tottenham travel to Aston Villa and Sunderland before they entertain Reading on New Year's Day.
"Scott Parker's return is very important," said Mousa Dembélé, the midfielder, who missed five weeks from mid-October with a hip problem but is now back to form and fitness. "He's a very organised guy, very professional and he is an unbelievable player as well. It's good for the team that there are a lot of rivals because it makes everybody sharp. I know that if I play one bad game, then Jake Livermore, Scott Parker, Tom Huddlestone and Tom Carroll are behind me. And, of course, there is Sandro, too. So we have to keep playing and that keeps the level high in this team."
Before Swansea, Parker's last game was for England against Italy in the Euro 2012 quarter-final on 24 June; he has been frustrated by a complicated achilles injury. It will be intriguing, though, to see how or if Villas-Boas accommodates him in the starting XI, given the strength and balance of Dembélé's partnership with Sandro.
Tottenham missed Dembélé when he was out – they lost four of five league matches without him – and it is highly unlikely that Villas-Boas would drop him. One option would be to play him further forward as a No10, although Dembélé, the August signing from Fulham, has grown into the deeper-lying role and the responsibility of compensating for the departure of Luka Modric to Real Madrid.
"Martin Jol tried me in more of a midfield role at Fulham last season and as I can attack and also defend a bit, I prefer this position," Dembélé said. "I like to see a lot of the ball and, in this position, I do. Before I came to Tottenham, I was a big fan of Luka Modric – for me, he was one of the best in England – but I am a totally different player so I don't feel I have to do exactly what he did. I just try my best to be as important as he was."
The one cloud on the injury front for Villas-Boas was the ankle and hamstring damage that Emmanuel Adebayor suffered against Swansea. The squad is short on strikers and although Adebayor's injuries are not serious and he has said that he will not go with Togo to the Africa Cup of Nations that begins next month because of a pay dispute, Villas-Boas will scrutinise the January market for fresh blood up front.
The Portuguese wants to strengthen and he heard an endorsement from within his squad for a potential target, the Ajax and Denmark attacking midfielder Christian Eriksen. "Technically, he's one of the best players I've played with," said the defender Jan Vertonghen, who joined Tottenham from Ajax in the summer. "He's left- and right-footed, and is always fit. He's a good player and a good player can play here."
Villas-Boas, though, has been boosted most noticeably by his sparsely populated treatment room. "People don't seem to value the situation we've been through," he said. "Younès has missed so much time … Gareth, Dembélé, Parker, Assou-Ekotto and then Rafa [Van der Vaart] and Modric [who were sold]. These players all played an important role last season. But the players coming back from injuries is a major, major bonus for us."
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