Free and easy

by Ewan Flynn

The only real danger came from Tottenham's own complacency and their bad habit of conceding freekicks in wide-areas, which they have struggled to defend so far this season.

Spurs kicked off the Europa League group stage with an emphatic win over Austrian side Linz ASK at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It was a night that demonstrated the vast strides the north Londoners have made over the summer in adding depth to their squad. Gareth Bale and new striker Vinicius, on his debut, were the star-turns as Harry Kane enjoyed a rare night off.

The Brazilian should have marked his Tottenham bow with a goal inside ten minutes. Matt Doherty was released down the right-wing following a neat combination with Bale. The Irish full-back had time to look up and pick out Vinicius, afforded the freedom of the visitor’s six-yard box. Such was the striker’s disappointment at skewing his header horribly wide, he proceeded to slap himself in the face.

It didn’t take him long to make amends. Ben Davies sent a probing pass down the left channel which Vinicius brilliantly controlled before steering the ball through the legs of a defender and into the path of the onrushing Lucas Moura. Moura made no mistake, stroking home first-time from 12 yards.

This is the first time Spurs have played in this stage of the Europa League since 2015-16 and based on this performance they should find qualifying for the knock-out rounds a stroll. The only real danger came from Tottenham’s own complacency and their bad habit of conceding freekicks in wide-areas, which they have struggled to defend so far this season. Linz never really looked capable of exploiting either of these vulnerabilities in truth.

Instead, it was the Austrians who gave Tottenham a helping hand as the home side doubled their lead in the 26th minute. Sergio Reguilon drove from the halfway line beyond four players to carry the ball to the edge of the Linz box. His pass to Lamela was in-turn threaded on to Gareth Bale, who with the outside of his left foot swerved a pass across the six-yard box. Before Vinicius could stab home, Andrade, Linz’s young Panamanian defender, diverted the ball into his own net.

Spurs almost immediately made it three. Having stolen possession back following Linz’s restart, Lamela had time to line up a shot on his favoured left foot. His strike from inside the box lacked the power to beat the increasingly exposed Schlager. Even so, the keeper almost conspired to gift a tap-in to Bale by fumbling the Argentine’s effort, before eventually smothering the ball on his goal-line.

The visitors did force Joe Hart into a decent save in first-half injury time. Andreas Gruber seized on a loose touch by Hojbjerg on the edge of the box, sending a curling shot goal bound which Hart parried away acrobatically. It was the type of stop TV commentators file under ‘One for the cameras’.

The second half was reminiscent of an international friendly where any rhythm to the game is stultified by a seemingly endless parade of substitutions. UEFA’s decision to allow five changes for each team per game in their competitions is excessive. At least by way of some consolation in the Europa League group stage, we are spared the purgatory of VAR decisions. Mourinho made a triple switch just after the hour mark. Son, Sissoko and the lesser-seen Dele Alli replaced Hojbjerg – head swathed in badges after a first-half collision required stitches – Lamela and Bale.

Alli appears up for the fight of winning back a starting place. His movement, desire to get on the ball and to make things happen, showed no sign of a player who is sulking or worse still has lost all hope. It was fellow substitute Son, however, who sealed the victory for Spurs in the closing stages. Doherty picked out Vinicius on the edge of the box with a flighted cross.

The striker notched up his second assist of the night by angling a deft header beyond the Linz defence, who in trying to push out left room for Son to dart into. The Korean is currently enjoying perhaps his most consistent form in a Tottenham shirt, and there was an inevitability about his calm finish across Schlager and into the far corner.

Vinicius exited the action with five minutes to play to what would have been a standing ovation had the stadium been full. So promising was his performance, Spurs fans will feel they have – at last – found a player who will allow the incomparable Harry Kane to flourish fully.

No longer will there be a need to flog the England captain by playing him in every minute of every match. Mourinho will be able to rest his star man and ensure he is fit and firing for the games that really matter. Perhaps say a Europa League final in Gdansk come May.

Author

Ewan Flynn

Freelance football writer for When Saturday Comes The Blizzard and FourFourTwo. Author of We Are Sunday League

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