If there was such a thing as a perfect Europa League Thursday night, here it was.
Tottenham Hotspur completed the most carefree 4-0 win, one that sent them joint-top of Group J on nine points. The dominant performance meant there was no need to call on any of the big guns to make an impact, as they stayed warm and fresh on the side ahead of Sunday’s showdown with third-placed Chelsea.
Instead, a line-up with 10 changes got the job done, with at times comical ease. Carlos Vinicius scored his first two goals for the club since his loan move from Benfica. The Brazilian impressed on his fifth appearance – a second start – exuding the confidence coursing through the entire squad right now, not just the regulars. He also laid on the fourth for Lucas Moura.
Harry Winks lobbed Ludogorets goalkeeper Plamen Iliev from about 60 yards out on the left-wing – by accident, he later admitted. Joe Hart, having shown off his cross-sport prowess during cricket sessions this week at the Hotspur Way training ground, spent his time watching the action unfold from the non-striker’s end.
After the exertions against Manchester City, and the challenge to come on the weekend, it was no surprise to see wholesale changes. What was a surprise was that the only survivor from the XI that started the 2-0 win was Tanguy Ndombele.
Granted, he came off after an hour on Saturday. But it was a show of faith in the Frenchman who spent the first season of his career in north London facing up to queries over his fitness and, thus, reliability. Most of them from his own manager.
But here was Jose Mourinho reasserting his faith in the £54million signing in the hope of a quick, hassle-free kill. That was repaid in a strong performance with and without the ball. He was at the heart of all good in a white shirt when the game was “live”, if there ever was such a phase.
It was his pass from deep that exposed the gap between midfield and defence for the opener after 16 minutes. That, in turn, allowed Vinicius to do similar with the space beyond the backline, sending Iliev the wrong way with a smart finish.
The assist for the goal was by Dele Alli, who seems to have replaced Ndombele as the designated player in the docks. The midfielder was making his first appearance since he was dragged off at half-time in the Europa League defeat at Antwerp, way back on 29 October.
Indeed, he may look at Ndombele as an example that even under Mourinho, there is a way in from the cold. It certainly requires a lot of patience and plenty of biting your tongue. Perhaps, Alli may feel it is not worth the hassle, even if Spurs are onto something good right now. A change of scenery in January may be a necessity for the 24-year-old, especially with his hopes for a spot in Gareth Southgate’s England squad for next summer’s European Championships seemingly non-existent at the time of writing.
Though he was not quite at his crisp best, the endeavour was evident, suggesting he’s not giving up that easily. As Ndombele jinked past green shirts and drew a save out of Iliev from the edge of the box, Alli preserved to get onto the rebound and showed guile to disguise a shot at the near post into a square ball to Vinicius, unmarked from six yards out, to make it 2-0 with 11 minutes of the first half still to go.
The match meandered from then on, purely because the hosts let it. Predictably, Ndombele made way on 61 minutes, replaced by Pierre Emile-Hojbjerg to get his half-an-hour and pound of flesh. By now, the Bulgarian side had given up, as encapsulated by Winks’ baffling strike.
He was almost encouraged to go for goal, as no one thought it worth to press him off a throw in and Iliev strayed flirtatiously off his line. Winks’ expression was one of embarrassment.
The fourth owed to more of the visitors’ generosity as they failed to carry the ball out of defence to allow Alli to find Vinicius once more in front of goal. This time, the 25-year-old passed on to Lucas, who side-footed high into the far corner.
That nagging sense that this was a pre-season friendly in regular-season clothing was confirmed with 81 on the clock. A triple change gave debuts to Dan Scarlett (16 years old) Harvey White (19) and goalkeeper Alfie Whiteman (22). That they were debuts at least made the final exchanges worthwhile. But really, thoughts had already turned to Chelsea at 2-0.
Spurs have just two days to recover, one fewer than Frank Lampard’s side who were in Champions League action on Wednesday. Luckily, there is not much to recover from.
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