There was more at stake for Tottenham Hotspur than securing their place in the last 32 of the Europa League next February – the merits of which continue to feel dubious – and Mauricio Pochettino knew it. How else could his team selection have been explained?
The starting XI that he sent out was stronger than that which he had named in the previous Champions League tie away to Monaco, when the club’s hopes had been on the line. This time, Kyle Walker and Jan Vertonghen played, rather than Kieran Trippier and Kevin Wimmer – although Mousa Dembélé was rested. Christian Eriksen started and produced a man-of-the-match turn.
Pochettino needed a win at Wembley. The club needed a win at Wembley. After the losses here against Monaco and Bayer Leverkusen, which had effectively ended the Champions League dream at the group stage, another poor result would have sparked talk of jinxes – and that was the last thing Tottenham wanted before next season, when they will play all of their home matches at the national stadium.
Pochettino went strong and he was rewarded, even if it had to be acknowledged that CSKA Moscow were dreadfully poor. In his last game in charge, Leonid Slutski named only five substitutes – three of them aged 20 or under; each of whom came on – and, having entered the Russian winter break, it felt as though his team’s hibernation had started early. Their next game will not be until March.
Tottenham could only beat what was in front of them and they did so with a comfort that was not entirely reflected in the scoreline, goals from Dele Alli and Harry Kane, plus a bizarre Igor Akinfeev own goal, setting up their latest tilt at the Europa League. The biggest cheer of the evening was reserved for Toby Alderweireld, who came on as a 68th-minute substitute after almost two months out with knee trouble. More importantly, Tottenham have proved a point at Wembley.
“We showed we can win here and that was important for us,” Pochettino said. “We believe we can win the Europa League and go far in the Premier League. We are in a good position, similar to last season. We are actually two points better off in the league. We have recovered the feeling that we maybe lost in the last month-and-a-half.”
There were one or two defensive wobbles, which felt incongruous on such a one-sided occasion and, from the first of them, CSKA took the lead. Vertonghen and Eric Dier were a long way apart when a high ball was punted forward and Zoran Tosic, who had looked offside, got in front of the former to head across for Alan Dzagoev. With Dier trailing, the CSKA No10 ran through to finish. It was practically the first time that the visitors had crossed halfway.
Dzagoev, a Russia international, has his admirers in the Premier League and Slutski said he would not be surprised if he moved to “one of the top British clubs”.
The home support – present in commendable numbers given the tie’s dead rubber billing in an attendance of 62,034 – must have wondered, at that point, whether it was going to be another one of those nights. Tottenham played with zip and cohesion, with the full-backs, Walker and Danny Rose, pressed high and they created a glut of early chances. All of them went begging.
Alli glanced wide; Son Heung-min was denied by Akinfeev and Eriksen could not beat the goalkeeper when gloriously placed. There was also another chance for Alli when he timed his run onto Eriksen’s pass only to scuff the finish.
Alli would locate his shooting boots and the equaliser came when he took a fine touch from Eriksen’s cross and guided a shot inside the far corner – although Walker appeared to have been offside in the build-up.
Georgi Milanov was thwarted by Hugo Lloris on the counter in the 43rd minute but Tottenham led at the interval after Eriksen found Rose and his cross was turned home by Kane.
There had been niggle in the first-half between Alli and Tosic, which was sparked when the Tottenham midfielder floated a 15th-minute shot just over Akinfeev’s crossbar – in the act of giving the ball back after a stoppage. It was cheeky and Tosic, in particular, took exception. Briefly, a melee flared. It was a rare example of CSKA fight.
Lacina Traoré blew a decent chance with a heavy touch on 77 minutes which, ridiculously, stood to make it 2-2 but, that apart, it was all Spurs in the second half.
Akinfeev stopped a volley from Kane while Alderweireld flashed a header off target. Moments before that, Tottenham had made the game safe. Akinfeev leapt to keep out Alli’s header from Kane’s cross only to volley the ball into his own net as his body twisted on its way down.TG