Kane and Ndombele to the rescue but Bale cannot arrive too soon
These are strange times indeed at Tottenham Hotspur, a club who are simultaneously scraping through a dreadful Europa League qualifier while finalising a deal for one of the planet’s most famous footballers.
They can only hope that Gareth Bale was watching the same unreliable feed as their supporters last night, for no player could have seen this performance and thought it looked like fun.
Jose Mourinho’s side lacked ideas and they were in danger of being knocked out of the Europa League before they had even reached the competition proper. It took a double red card for Lokomotiv Plovdiv for Spurs to make the breakthrough, with Harry Kane and Tanguy Ndombele scoring in the final 10 minutes to rescue the occasion.
Plovdiv had taken the lead a few moments earlier, casting doubt on whether Tottenham will indeed be playing any European football this campaign. What would that have meant for their finances? What would it have meant for the pursuit of Bale? Mourinho and Daniel Levy, the chairman, will be thankful that, ultimately, those questions will not need to be answered.
“When they scored it was a moment for them to dream and a moment for us to fear for our future in the competition,” said Mourinho, whose team were dominant throughout without ever looking especially fluid in attack.
They created chances in both halves but, against limited opposition, Tottenham never seemed sharp. Only when Plovdiv lost
Birsent Karagaren and Dinis Almeida to red cards did the visitors really look like a team capable of sweeping the opposition aside.
On a more encouraging note, it will be a source of excitement for Mourinho that Ndombele was so assured off the bench. Tottenham’s record signing has struggled since joining the club but here he injected energy and enthusiasm. For the winner, he started and finished the move. Such an intervention can only help to build his self-belief, and that of his manager.
“Tanguy is in a process of evolution,” Mourinho said. “Last season he was stuck in a situation where I could not see evolution. In this moment he is training very well. He is recovering from his injury, he is recovering physicality. In this moment I believe in Tanguy. I never doubt his quality – in some moments I doubt his motivation, commitment and professional attitude.”
Plovdiv finished fifth in the Bulgarian league last season and qualified for European competition by winning the country’s domestic cup. They were never expected to pose too much of a threat to Spurs but the one-off nature of these qualifiers, with everything decided on the night, provided a perilous edge to proceedings.
As Tottenham struggled to turn dominance into chances, Mourinho’s mind might already have been drifting towards Bale. One would certainly expect the Welshman to finish some of the opportunities spurned by Son Heung-min and Giovani
Lo Celso. “I cannot comment on something I don’t know,” Mourinho said of the Bale reports. “Until I am told Gareth is a Tottenham player, I still think and respect the fact he is a Real Madrid player.”
Despite Tottenham being far from their best, Plovdiv rode their luck. The
Big moments: Harry Kane equalises with a penalty for Spurs against Lokomotiv Plovdiv last night (right); Gareth Bale hopes to get the No11 shirt at Tottenham which he was also handed on signing for Real Madrid in 2013 (below) home side were somehow able to avoid conceding a penalty despite Lucas Masoero committing the most obvious of fouls on Steven Bergwijn, who was hacked down on the right side of the box.
The problem for Tottenham, as it has been too often under Mourinho’s management, was that their fleeting moments of attacking promise did not become sustained pressure on the opposition. If anything they became more stodgy in the second half, with the fireworks provided not by their attacking players but by the Plovdiv fans outside the ground.
After the break, Son skied an easy chance from six yards and the body language of the players, and indeed Mourinho himself, began to betray Tottenham’s frustrations. A year ago this week, Spurs were playing in a packed-out stadium against Olympiacos in the Champions League. This increasingly grim occasion was a neat encapsulation of their difficulties since.
They fell behind after 71 minutes, when Georgi Minchev headed in from Dimitar Iliev’s cross. A gruelling occasion suddenly threatened to become a gruesome night, before a handball on the line by Almeida allowed Kane to equalise from 12 yards. Before Kane struck, Karagaren received a second yellow card for trying to dig up the penalty spot. A few minutes later, Ndombele drove through midfield, passed to Lucas Moura and converted the cross himself.
Lokomotiv Plovdiv (3-4-3) Lukov 6; Petrovic 6, Masoero 5, Almeida 4; Karagaren 4, Vitanov 5 (Mihaljevic 81), Umarbayev 5 (Minchev 68), Tsvetanov 6; Iliev 5, Aralica 5 (Ilic 68), Salinas 6. Subs Pirgov (g), Muslimovic, Pugliese, Nikolaev.
Booked Masoero. Sent off Almeida, Karagaren. Tottenham Hotspur (4-3-3) Lloris 6; Doherty 5, Sanchez 5 (Moura 73), Dier 5, Davies 6; Sissoko 5 (Ndombele 61), Hojbjerg 6, Lo Celso 6; Bergwijn 6 (Lamela 70), Kane 6, Son 6. Subs Hart (g), Carter-Vickers, Winks, Sessegnon.
Referee Harm Osmers (Germany).