Like a Qarabağ, Caught in the Wind – Spurs Float into the Knockouts
A curiously full-strength Tottenham side trotted out under the arches of Tofiq Bahramov Stadium on Thursday night, for their penultimate Europa League Group J game with Azerbaijan’s finest, Qarabağ.
In the drizzly twilight of the nation’s capital, Baku, Pochettino looked to unload every inch of the North London club’s armoury, in an attempt to clinch qualification as early as humanly possible. Then, perhaps, be afforded the chance to rest a few first-teamers in a hopefully less critical final game with Monaco in mid-December.
Despite the overall spectacle being one of those purists only affairs, it appears to be a gamble that’s paid off. Spurs have qualified for the knockouts with a game to spare. Baku the net.
In truth, the strong team selection had the whiff of calculated risk about it. Of the big hitters who some might’ve expected to have been spared the trip, it was only Christian Eriksen, Eric Dier and Harry Kane, whose involvement you would seriously question. That said, if Pochettino’s idea was to kill the game off post-haste, the strategy has a much greater chance of success if your two bonafide match-winners are on the field.
We’ve not seen enough of Clinton N’Jie to determine whether he’s capable of any decisive input and Heung-min Son’s dicky foot is only recently out of its cryogenic healing sock. Pretty sure that’s a thing.
Of the rest, Dele Alli is suspended for Sunday’s game anyway, so worth another outing, and, as we’ve mentioned, Son has only recently returned from injury and in dire need of game time.
The Belgian central defensive axis might have been candidates for a night of huddling under the dug-out blankets and admiring the architecture, but you can’t imagine they would’ve exerted themselves too much against the Azerbaijani Champions, at least not enough to have them still wheezing in tandem come Sunday lunchtime. Same goes for Hugo Lloris.
Sure enough, there’s the demands of intercontinental travel to factor in- just shy of 3,000 miles of airspace each-way by Google Map’s reckoning- and, of course, the chance of potential injury is rather more likely in the throes of a bone-shuddering challenge, than, say, sitting at home on your sofa.
But, with everyone having reportedly come through the ordeal unscathed, Spurs and Pochettino can cast their eye towards the weekend’s home fixture with a half-resurgent Chelsea.
The game itself was light on action. It was perhaps an indication that things weren’t exactly going well on the old entertainment front, that for a long time the opening paragraph of this piece was to be focused on the fact that Brad Friedel was on co-commentator duties.
With not much to report on after that discovery, the following part was shaping up to be a lengthy ode to the first shot on target, which arrived in the 35th minute courtesy of a Toby Alderweireld long-range arm-chancer. He can hit them, suggested Brad. Not on this evidence.
In another rare snippet of joy, Jan Vertonghen executed a lightning-quick shimmy out of defence at one point in the first-half. Leaving his hopeless marker with twisted blood. It escapes me who claimed that the Belgian was the most skilful player in the current Spurs squad, but it’s not too tricky to imagine they were genuine in their assertions. Exhibit A, your honour.
In the end it was that man again, Harry Kane, who came to Spurs’ rescue, making sure this whole drawn-out mission into sort-of-Europe-but-really-kind-of-Asia wasn’t a complete disaster. An instinctive close-quarter header from a Christian Eriksen corner on the 78th minute. Later perhaps than Pochettino’s plan had allowed for, but a match-winning effort all the same.