Tottenham Hotspur have eeked their way into the Champions League for the third successive season, with talisman Harry Kane netting the only goal against Newcastle on a nervous North London night.
With a little help from Huddersfield Town, Spurs have managed to shrug off the Chelsea challenge one match earlier than most had anticipated, or indeed hoped for. The Terriers held the West Londoners to a 1-1 draw, rendering their race to beat Spurs to the top four over.
Kane Sends Spurs to the Champions League
The Tottenham starting 11 raised eyebrows, as Toby Alderweireld was dropped to the bench despite being Spurs’ best player at West Bromwich Albion. Injuries to Eric Dier and Moussa Dembele saw Spurs fans taking to Twitter, speculating about the possibility of a start for Lucas Moura. However, it was the ever controversial Moussa Sissoko that started alongside Victor Wanyama.
Captain Hugo Lloris had spoken prior to the game about the Spurs’ players needing to show a ‘strong mentality.’
The first fifteen minutes saw fans anxious as that mentality looked fragile. Nerves clearly showed with Newcastle taking advantage. Idea-less Spurs looked slow and uncomfortable. Christian Eriksen did come close with a free kick denied only by a excellent Martin Dubravka stop.
Newcastle broke next. The home fans relieved to see Jonjo Shelvey hit the post from a free kick, Moussa Sissoko having committed a cynical foul on Dwight Gayle. More ‘sideways’ football ensued from Spurs, with only Eriksen proactive. Lloris then, using his own strength of focus, made a smart save to deny Jamaal Lascelles.
Spurs failed to settle, giving the ball away needlessly and still looking pensive. Their nerves were transmitted to the crowd who did their best to stir their team but little seemed to rouse them. Perhaps the last-gasp goal suffered at the hands of West Brom was still in mind.
Sky Punidits referred to Spurs in the first half as ‘politely passing the ball around without going anywhere’. A trait that has featured in Spurs’ play since beating Chelsea at the beginning of April at Stamford Bridge.
Davinson Sanchez was made to run by Kenedy, was hesitant on the ball, often looking panicked. This was highlighted when he shanked a ball out for a corner. The move began with an overhead ball he should have dealt with, his usual composure was lost. The secure Spurs’ defense of the the past two seasons looked shaken, with players not tracking back to help out.
Dwight Gayle headed over when he should have at least made Lloris work, the Spurs skipper screamed at those in front of him.
The mentality Lloris had spoken of was absent. Just a couple of minutes later, the Spurs captain bypassed the ineffective midfield, instead launching a long ball over the top to Kane.
A fully-fit Kane would have fired home instead of miss-kicking the only solid chance of note in the first half. Much to the displeasure of the Spurs captain and the home fans. If it was Newcastle United who had nothing to play for, they must have misread the script.
Moussa Sissoko has been much maligned by his own fans, and did little to change opinion against his former club. When Spurs did break, he slowed, thus doing little to impact the game. Each poor touch met by jeers from both sets of fans.
Victor Wanyama was sluggish, faiing to re-settle after allowing Shelvey to waltz pass him just 15 minutes in. The Spurs fans tried to lift their team but it was a chorus of boos that met a welcome half-time whistle.
No Kane No Gain
It would’ve been no surprise to see Mauricio Pochettino make changes at half time. An injection of pace from Lucas Moura would have been welcomed.
Not making changes soon enough has been one of the few criticisms aimed at the Spurs’ boss. Calls for the introduction of Moura could be felt around the Wembley crowd.
Newcastle looked the livelier of the two sides after the restart, but with just five minutes gone, the ball came back to Kane, who curled a trademark right footed shot into the corner.
It was interesting to note that the celebrations from the players was muted compared what we have come to see from a team seemingly so united. Perhaps telling of the pressure felt by young team. However, Spurs had their goal. The feeling of relief around the stadium was palpable. For the first time in the game, Kane, Alli and Eriksen began to combine without the ball hitting shins or bobbling away to a Newcastle player.
With or Without Harry?
Kane looked short of fitness again tonight as he has since his returning from injury.
It could be said that Kane’s return to action has somewhat derailed Spurs in recent weeks. Especially when you look back to the clinical and professional victory away at Chelsea, where Spurs looked free flowing and confident.
Kane’s return has seemed to affect the team dynamic. Heung-Min Son has gone from looking like a world-class player to one lacking confidence. A few short months ago, his step-overs and passes rarely failed.
Tonight, the ball never stuck, seeing him dispossessed far too many times. When the Korean star was replaced by Erik Lamela, his trudge off the field was indicative of Spurs in the games since that victory at Stamford Bridge.
But of course, you never write off Harry Kane. Ultimately, however turgid the game, he was the match winner. The winner that sees Spurs back in Champions League action for a third successive season.
Murphy’s Law for Sanchez?
When Kenedy was substituted for Jacob Murphy, Sanchez must have breathed a sigh of relief. However, there was no time for that as Murphy left him for dead with his woeful shot saving Spurs’ lead.
An injury to Kieran Trippier may be cause for concern, a scan in the coming days will reveal the extent of any damage. The injury did mean a cameo role for Toby Alderweireld, a sight for sore eyes of fans who are preparing to lose the stalwart defender.
As news filtered around the stadium that Huddersfield had drawn with Chelsea, the fans relaxed. The players kept the ball, and Champions League football was secured.
With a demeanour much changed since his last time post-match interview, Pochettino spoke to Sky Sports, he said of the win;
”It is a massive achievement being realistic. I think we, the fans and our people are now conscious of the achievement of the team. I want to congratulate players, the staff. A massive effort, playing 38 games. One more away from our new home. To play in the Champion’s League for the third time is a massive achievement. “
They may have made hard work of it, but the job was done. After such a sterling effort for the most of the season, and a shiny new home, exclusion from the Champion’s League would have been a crushing blow for the team and ever-forgiving Tottenham fans. And for the club. Daniel Levy will no doubt sleep more soundly on his £50M-ish Champion’s League cushion. Now in charge of a club a little less likely to lose its star players.
— Harry Kane (@HKane) May 9, 2018