Stretching a compact and narrow opponent saw another Champions League victory as it finished APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Spurs in Group H.
Continuing the catch-up. A gritty performance was required by Spurs to overturn a feisty APOEL Nicosia team in Cyprus. Stretching Nicosia was the key. Mauricio Pochettino used both width and depth to drag and move the hosts out of their compact shape. A Harry Kane hat trick was the result as it ended APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Spurs in the GSP Stadium.
APOEL Nicosia shape
APOEL played a classic 4-4-2 counter attack. The Cypriots backed it up by playing very narrow and compact from back to front.
The defensive line pushed up high to limit the space their midfielders had to cover. The Cypriot team also played extremely narrow, again to protect their midfield, but also to force Spurs out of the centre. Nicosia was content to make us move the ball wide and then run out to mark.
The formation gave APOEL a good base from which to attack. Once Nicosia had possession they were immediately looking for the runs of centre forwards Roland Sallai and Igor de Camargo or sprightly winger Efstathios Aloneftis.
Spurs defensive blunders
Spurs controlled the early possession, but APOEL were the more potent with their rapier quick counter attacks. Igor de Camargo broke free and rattled Hugo Lloris’ bar with a fizzing drive following Serge Aurier’s costly slip.
Lloris then had himself to blame as he raced from his line to clear up an errant through ball from a quick APOEL counter attack. However, our keeper’s clearance rebounded straight back off Davinson Sanchez and scarily towards the goal. Lloris’ blushes were spared as fortunately the ball rolled just past the post.
Spurs stretch APOEL shape
Nicosia’s narrow and compact shape was causing us problems. Our wingbacks were the key players against their system, but Serge Aurier and Kieran Trippier struggled in the first half to have the impact that would break the game open.
The issue was in the positioning of personnel. Trippier was a right footer playing down the left and frequently cut back on to his favoured boot. APOEL were therefore often given time to recover. Aurier was more of a threat, but struggled to dovetail with Moussa Sissoko, who often got in his way or ran defenders in to his space.
Sissoko played an interesting role. In the absence of Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen, he was thrust in to a more central attacking position. However, the Frenchman wanted to pull out to the right, but that just complicated things for Aurier. He would’ve better served the team by looking to get in the box and on the end of crosses. When Sissoko did play more centrally, Aurier was freed up to attack either his marker or the space left by APOEL’s narrow shape.
Sissoko being in the middle had a major part to play in the opening goal. Sissoko’s movement dragged one centre back with him. Harry Kane was therefore left isolated against the other.
Spurs had been stretching APOEL predominantly with width, now they would stretch them with depth. One single pass from Toby Alderweireld at the back would hit Harry Kane on the move up front.
Kane made no mistake as he gathered the ball and slotted it past helpless keeper Boy Waterman to give Spurs a vital lead, 1-0.
The goal briefly knocked the wind out of APOEL who had been dangerous in their swift counter attacks. After the interval, the Cypriot team would be back in search of an equaliser as they looked to hit the space beyond our high defensive line.
APOEL caused trouble. Efstathios Aloneftis was pushed further forward to operate much closer to the strikers, as Nicosia sought to use his speed. Three chances ensued as the ball was sent in to the space behind our high defensive line without hesitation whenever APOEL had the opportunity.
Hugo Lloris pulled off two smart saves to deny Aloneftis and Sallai as APOEL pushed for an equaliser.
Spurs shape change
APOEL were committing more men in to their counter attacks and so the game was becoming stretched. Mauricio Pochettino therefore made a very brave and attacking change. Fernando Llorente replaced Serge Aurier and three centre backs were reduced to two. Llorente went up top with Harry Kane as Pochettino went from 3-4-2-1 to 4-4-2.
The change was bold, but equally daring to add firepower when APOEL were at their most aggressive point, but also their most vulnerable.
Sissoko stretches the game
The change by Mauricio Pochettino moved Moussa Sissoko out to the right, a position he is much more at ease with. Now on the flank, Sissoko played a major role in stretching APOEL out wide, as two goals from his right side in six minutes killed the game.
Firstly, narrow Nicosia were punctured by Kieran Trippier’s pass to Moussa Sissoko running behind left back Roberto Lago. Showing uncharacteristic poise, Sissoko had the awareness to neatly cut the ball back for Harry Kane.
Looking in one corner, Kane dispatched the ball in to other for one of the best wrong-footing goals you will see. Boy Waterman certainly took the bait.
Sissoko was then involved in stretching APOEL out wide again. His run inside held full back Roberto Lago narrow, leaving Kieran Trippier free on the flank.
Harry Kane found Trippier with a neat pass that was aimed at Sissoko, but aware of what was outisde him, Sissoko let it run. Trippier then returned the favour with a perfectly placed cross for Kane to complete his hat trick. Harry Kane’s his sixth treble of 2017.
In six swift minutes, the score had ballooned to APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Spurs and the game was over.
APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Spurs overall
Spurs weren’t at their best, but were at their most ruthless. Harry Kane brutally punished APOEL when we were able to expose their compact and narrow formation from stretching it in-behind or out wide.
Mauricio Pochettino was equally bold in his changes. Sensing the right time to be ultra aggressive when APOEL were at their most dangerous, but equally vulnerable, swiftly killed off the game.
Harry Kane was once again the hero, but Moussa Sissoko was inadvertently effective. Sissoko’s runs took defenders away on two goals and he assisted the other. Recent performances are seeing the Frenchman slowly turning the corner from laughing stock to decent squad option.
Final score: APOEL Nicosia 0-3 Spurs.
MOTM: Harry Kane.