Tottenham Hotspur knocked and knocked and finally broke down the Middlesbrough door, a penalty from Harry Kane preserving their outside chance of disturbing Chelsea at the top of the table. There was no doubt Spurs were the dominant team but cussed Boro made that darned tough to prove on the scoreboard.
“It was a good performance, I’m very happy, but we need to keep improving and be more clinical,” Mauricio Pochettino said. The Spurs manager went into the game knowing this match would test the depth of his squad’s human and mental resources. How would the absence of Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen affect their defence? And how would the increasingly faint sight of Chelsea’s exhaust fumes affect their belief they can overtake the league leaders? Or maybe their imperative was to pull away from the other chasers on a day when Arsenal and Liverpool flopped?
Either way, after Tuesday’s anaemic draw at Sunderland, the Spurs manager needed to see a demonstration of iron conviction here as well as a cutting edge, especially as Middlesbrough, despite their lowly position, are stubborn travellers, with only Chelsea having conceded fewer away league goals than them this season. Mind you, Spurs are exceptionally inhospitable hosts and have now beaten the last 10 visitors to White Hart Lane.
This, though, was a hard fight. Boro were even the first to threaten, as Adama Traoré hurtled down the right wing and crossed for Álvaro Negredo, who headed over from eight yards. That, however, was about as audacious as Boro got, as Spurs took over and forced Boro to defend. They did so splendidly, abetted by the fact Spurs’ finishing was more scruffy than their smooth buildups.
Son Heung-min’s low shot from the left after fine work by Dele Alli and Kane forced an excellent diving save from Victor Valdés in the fifth minute. Four minutes later Christian Eriksen released Alli with a sumptuous pass, but the midfielder clipped his shot into the side-netting.
Spurs began to enjoy the lion’s share of possession but Boro were no pussycats and defended tigerishly. Even still, they would have fallen behind in the 23rd minute if Toby Alderweireld’s header from a corner by Eriksen had been a couple of inches more to the right; instead it bounced out off the near post.
Anxiety grew among the home crowd in the face of Boro’s disciplined resistance and Spurs’ imprecision when push came to shove. Kane could have eased nerves in the 35th minute when he darted into a rare gap in the visiting defence and received a cross by Son but he headed over from 12 yards. Alderweireld went closer before the break with another header, again from a corner by Eriksen, but Valdés saved. By half-time the home fans could have been forgiven for fretting about another frustrating draw. Or worse.
For all his team’s cussedness, Aitor Karanka was not happy with Boro and sensed some of his players had been unnerved by the victories of Hull and Sunderland earlier in the day. “I told them at half-time we needed to play our way and be more aggressive and intense,” he said. “We showed in the second half that we can compete against every team.”
But Spurs remained in charge. Pochettino changed neither his personnel nor his team’s approach during the break, seemingly convinced that persistence would pay. There were sceptics in the crowd, however, and they groaned in the 48th minute when Kane spurned a shooting chance and lost possession. There was no such dithering from Eriksen two minutes later but his blast from 20 yards was batted away by Valdés. Boro’s defenders were proving equally defiant: closing, blocking and clearing like their Premier League lives’ depended on it. But then, in the 56th minute, a sleight of foot in the box by Son duped Bernardo Espinosa into a foul. The referee pointed to the spot; the crowd held its breath; and Kane held his nerve to send Valdés the wrong way and the ball into the net.
Spurs did not bask in their relief. They chased another goal. Eriksen would have got one immediately if not for another brilliant stop by Valdés. Then the irrepressible Son struck the outside of the post after being sent clear by Alli.
Spurs had Boro in a headlock and refused to let go – until a punt forward in stoppage time nearly led to an equaliser, only for Marten de Roon to drag a shot wide from 10 yards. Asked whether his team’s title hopes would have been shattered if that shot had found the net, Pochettino said: “Maybe, yes. But nine points [between Spurs and Chelsea] is OK. There are a lot of games ahead. I am happy to put pressure on us and say we are a real contender and we are a team ready to win the title. I manage pressure very well, no problem.”TG