Tottenham marched into their final Europa League Thursday evening of the year with two simple objectives: to secure the victory that would place them as Group J victors and to do so while preserving key players ahead of a suffocating Christmas to come. In the end, they pulled both feats well enough, securing a 2-0 win over Royal Antwerp after goals from Carlos Vinícius and Giovani Lo Celso.
Over their previous 19 games Tottenham’s only loss came against Royal Antwerp in Belgium six weeks ago, who finished as 1-0 winners. It reflected perhaps the only thing that has not quite worked well for Spurs this season – the insipid performances when José Mourinho has attempted to rest his best players and rotate his team in Europa League away fixtures.
No matter, the manager predictably rotated once more and on home soil in front of another small group of 2,000 fans, he hoped that occasion would pan out slightly differently. The hosts started with a 3-4-3 formation, the second string front three of Gareth Bale, Vinícius and Lucas Moura starting in place of the rested stars. Those on the bench included, of course, Son Heung-Min and Harry Kane.
For those drafted in, it was but another opportunity to prove their worth in one of the most competitive teams in Europe. Early on, what they provided was mixed messages. They started well enough, allowing the Belgian side to hold much of the early possession and quickly demonstrating the counterattacking threat from the forward trio. The visitors, operating in a curious 5-4-1, were tidier on the ball but impotent in the final third as Tottenham imposed delicate pressure from the beginning.
Vinícius was typically energetic, battling with defenders and providing a helpful outlet with good runs, but he was also quite wasteful, narrowly missing two headers from set pieces and he. Lucas drove well at the defence, at one point generating a decent, low drive towards goal that was eventually thwarted by Bale inadvertently wandering into an offside position and blocking his teammate’s shot. Bale himself remained on the periphery for much of the first half, one of the least effective forwards.
Within 25 minutes, Tottenham had racked up six shots to Antwerp’s zero, but with few clear-cut chances they began to force the issue too much. As the half wore on, Lo Celso emerged as the notable performer as he looked to take the game by the scruff of the neck and the Argentinian so nearly succeeded. He broke quickly and brilliantly after a tepid opposition attack, following up a driving run with a diagonal pass that just narrowly missed the run of Vinícius. Moments later, Lo Celso flitted forward and attempted a left outside-of-the-boot strike that fizzed towards the right corner, testing goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand.
The half finished with the home team on the front foot but they could not break through against a smart, streetwise Antwerp anchored by strong performance from their back three, with particular credit to Senegalese Abdoulaye Seck. Spurs’ best opportunity before the break came at the last as Lucas played in Vinícius on the left with a precise, low pass. One on one with Beiranvand, the Brazilian fired his shot straight at the keeper.
The second half began even more timidly as the first. Although Lo Celso immediately created another chance for himself after his fizzing left-footed shot was blocked by a flying Antwerp body, it was otherwise scrappy and inconsistent with both sides relinquishing the ball too easily.
Just as Mourinho finally decided to make changes, with Kane hovering on the touchline, Seck pushed Lucas to give away a free-kick from 30 yards out. It would lead to one of the moments that so many have been waiting for from Bale since his return. The Welshman produced a stunning free-kick that curled, arced and twisted through the air before speeding for the top right-hand corner. The Antwerp keeper met the strike with one hand, but Vinícius followed it quickly and buried the rebound into the open net.
It would turn out to be the final touch for both players as Mourinho made a triple substitution, with Kane and Son arriving as Tanguy Ndombele replacing Harry Winks.
And then, just like that, it was over. The new arrivals imbued the home team with added quality and confidence, attacking relentlessly and generated countless quality chances. After Kane narrowly missed a header that he should have scored, he showed once again this season that scoring is only one part of what he offers these days caressing a beautifully weighted pass to Lo Celso on his right. The Argentinian took the opportunity with ease as he placed the ball into the goal with the outside of his left foot.