If this was Tottenham Hotspur’s grand response to that anaemic defeat at Liverpool last Saturday, then Mauricio Pochettino has plenty to ponder. A team who pride themselves on an all-action, aggressive approach have lost their way. The zest has drained from the play. This Europa League tie can still be claimed back at Wembley next week but it is KAA Gent, mid-table in the Belgian top flight and a team apparently there for the taking, who go into the return fixture with the initiative.
Pochettino insisted the tie remains open and even praised his players’ attitude but, privately, he would have expected so much more. He had picked nine of the starters from Anfield, senior players having made clear their desire to make immediate amends from that relatively feeble showing on Merseyside. Even Gent had been braced for a reaction. Yet the visitors only summoned one period of sustained attacking pressure, a spell that yielded them nothing and was ultimately punctured by Jérémy Perbet’s goal at the other end. In truth, they looked uncomfortable throughout.
Their desperation to improve and impose saw switches of system and personnel but it all felt rather laboured. They have mustered one goal, Harry Kane’s penalty against Middlesbrough, since defeating Wycombe Wanderers at the end of last month and their rhythm is suddenly disrupted and their effervescence dulled. It is actually alarming to see a Pochettino side look so jaded in mid-February.
“We’ve started now a bad period and I hope, on Sunday, we break that negative run,” said Pochettino, his mind drifting briefly to the awkward FA Cup fifth round tie at Fulham when Kane, nursing a slight knee complaint, will be one of a number of absentees from his lineup. “It is not down to confidence. Up until the Liverpool game we had gone 11 games unbeaten, so it’s not about confidence.
“The tie is open. We cannot be worried about the result today, about the trust on the team. The attitude was good. We fought. Now we go to Wembley next Thursday and try and make it feel like a home.” That proved beyond them in the Champions League before Christmas. Now the chance to ease themselves into the second leg with a healthy lead established in Flanders has been passed up. They will have to be more sprightly than this to extend their European campaign and force passage into the last 16.
Spurs’ defeated players had taken refuge back in the away dressing room by the time the home support broke away from their raucous celebrations to serenade their manager, Hein Vanhaezebrouck, with a chorus of “Happy Birthday”. He will remember the day he turned 53 with delight and will hope to exploit Tottenham’s uncertainty over life at Wembley next week. “The most important thing for us was to make that game meaningful, and avoid losing 4-0,” said Vanhaezebrouck, who has regularly worked as a pundit on Belgian television covering FA Cup finals at the national stadium. “That can happen for the best, as we saw this week. But now that return game is very interesting.”
The locals had always treated this occasion as respite from domestic toils but victory ended up feeling historic. They had created the better chances up to the interval, with Kenneth Saief a nuisance down the left, Thomas Foket just as pesky on the right and Danijel Milicevic offering bite up front. The man-mountain in defensive midfield, Anderson Esiti, crunched into anything that moved while Perbet delivered the odd classy touch as the central attacking pivot. His real reward came just before the hour mark.
Spurs had just clipped a post, Kane spinning away from two defenders only to find the woodwork, and might have imagined asserting some control, only for sloppiness to grip once again. Saief eked out space from Kyle Walker before Nana Asare collected and liberated Milicevic to the byline. The Bosnian drew Harry Winks, Toby Alderweireld and Ben Davies to him before pulling his centre back across the Spurs players, the ball flicking off the Welshman before reaching Perbet. The striker had to readjust his feet but his finish was dispatched crisply into the far corner, through Moses Simon who was loitering on the goalline.
Hugo Lloris tipped another effort from Milicevic on to a post before the end, with the visitors undermined by their own desperation to recover some poise. They never really threatened to force parity and departed with Kane and Dele Alli taking their exasperation out on the French officials. “When you lose you’re frustrated and you feel all the decisions had gone against you,” added Pochettino. Their failings here felt rather more self-inflicted.TG