José Mourinho pledged that Tottenham Hotspur would be at “full power” in north east Bulgaria on Thursday night and, sure enough, a high-wattage performance dazzled Ludogorets into submission.
With Harry Kane scoring his 200th goal in a Spurs shirt on his 300th appearance for the club, the Bulgarian champions rarely looked as if they would collect their first point of this Europa League campaign as Mourinho’s revamped side atoned for last week’s reverse against Royal Antwerp.
This restorative win leaves Spurs set fair to progress from Group J. “We couldn’t have lost two Europa League matches,” said Mourinho. “We couldn’t have gone into the last three matches with only three points. This was a win we needed.”
Tottenham – featuring Kane and Gareth Bale deployed alongside each other for the first time as Mourinho made seven changes from the Antwerp setback – were two up at half-time. After Kane had limbered up by, variously, failing to accept the scoring invitation issued by Harry Winks’s audacious second minute chip, hitting a post and forcing Plamen Iliev into a decent save, he finally connected with Lucas Moura’s corner. Rising, imperiously, above all comers he powered a header beyond the home goalkeeper and joined Jimmy Greaves and Bobby Smith in Tottenham’s exclusive “200 goals and counting” club.
By half-time Spurs had doubled their advantage. Perhaps anxious not to be upstaged by his fellow forward, Bale helped create the second goal, sliding a fine pass for Kane to roll a low cross towards Lucas whose close-range finish did the rest.
Bale inched closer to optimal match fitness during 65 minutes punctuated by some promising touches, most notably a defence-bisecting back-heel, as the Wales talisman gradually consigns his travails at Real Madrid to receding memory. Mourinho decided Kane’s work was done at the interval, replacing him with Carlos Vinícius, who, frustratingly failed to seize this opportunity to shine on an accommodating stage, instead struggling horribly in the final third.
Maybe Kane’s teammates interpreted his early exit as a cue to relax because they began the half by sitting back and momentarily losing concentration. Bernard Tekpetey, newly liberated from the bench by the Ludogorets interim coach, Stanislav Genchev, was afforded space to unleash a deflected shot which fell for Claudiu Keseru to volley beyond that latterly lesser spotted goalkeeper Joe Hart.
The time had come for Mourinho to introduce Son Heung-min and the South Korean had been on the pitch for only 17 seconds, after replacing Lucas, when his first and unselfish touch cued up Giovani Lo Celso to tap in goal No 3.
It may have been a straightforward finish but Lo Celso also offered plenty of fancy footwork, arguably eclipsing more illustrious teammates as he redeemed himself for a sub-standard display in Antwerp which had seen the Argentinian withdrawn at half-time.
Mourinho, though, was unhappy with Lo Celso’s out of possession contribution. “Good with the ball and not good without the ball,” he said, pointedly. “He is not in good physical condition. He has been up and down but he is coming on step by step. I feel he is still not the Gio we know that can be an amazing player. What he does with the ball is incredible but we need more intensity.”
While Son had, in contrast, and not for the first time, re-affirmed his immense worth to Spurs, the sense that Dele Alli’s star continues to wane in Mourinho’s firmament was reinforced as north London’s latest troubled talent remained benched throughout.
Granted a rare moment in the sun, Hart looked desperate to impress but had few chances. Admittedly Cauly Souza duly offered the Bulgarians a glimmer of late hope courtesy of a couple of eye-catching stepovers but when Souza cleverly manoeuvred himself into some decent space he ended up shooting straight at the former England goalkeeper.
No matter, with Winks upping his midfield game and Eric Dier at the heart of an immaculately organised Spurs defence, Mourinho could allow himself a smile.