Back-to-back wins see us in with a great chance to qualify for the Europa League knockout stages, as it finishes Asteras Tripolis 1 Spurs 2 in Greece.
We were made to work on a difficult pitch, which was slow due to the length of the grass. It also contained a few surprises, as the ball randomly bobbled and flicked up off the surface.
The key for us was very much the switch of Andros Townsend to play as a natural winger on the left. However, we really let Asteras Tripolis back in to after the interval due to Mauricio Pochettino’s half time substitution.
Spurs good start
The first half saw us dominate as Asteras played on the counter attack and were content to sit deep. Their best, and only real opportunity of the first 45, presented itself after twelve minutes. Pablo Mazza was sprung in-behind Eric Dier by a long ball over the top of our high defensive line. Dier recovered excellently to slide in and put the ball out for a corner.
We controlled possession and much of the territorial advantage, as the ball spent most of its time in the Asteras Tripolis half. The key to this was the work of Mousa Dembele and Benjamin Stambouli.
The pair at the base of our midfield were operating as a proper pivot. When Stambouli went forward, Dembele dropped in and vice versa.
Both were excellent at regaining the ball. They pressed up to hem Asteras in so they couldn’t get out of their half through the short passing that they were trying to employ. This really only left them the long ball and Mazza’s chance was the only scare on our goal.
The problem this caused was a huge number of bodies in the Asteras half. Many of our shots, before taking the lead, were from range. Jan Vertonghen and Eric Lamela both hitting high and wayward efforts in to the upper parts of the metal fencing behind the goal were some more notable ones.
Space on the left
With Asteras sitting deep, our formation needed width. Andros Townsend started on the right and cut inside back in to the traffic. Eric Lamela was playing from the left, but rather than work as a winger on his natural foot, he kept coming in to central locations.
This did create room for Ben Davies, but we just didn’t find him enough, as Lamela was slow to release the ball and often just didn’t see him.
Here, on 5 minutes, Lamela tried to beat his man when Davies was wide open and on the move.
Later, Lamela had the ball centrally once more as Davies was in acres again.
Despite this, Davies did get in the game. He had a shout for a penalty turned down as he was bundled over in the box, but the player finding his movement was Mousa Dembele. However, his long switches in play from the centre of the park gave the Asteras defence time to recover.
Townsend switch key
Mauricio Pochettino must have seen the space Davies was getting and after 35 minutes Townsend and Lamela switched sides.
This immediately paid dividends, as Andros was able to get on the ball and dribble at the full back. In just the ten minutes before half time he earned a penalty and created a goal for Harry Kane.
His surging dribble past Brian Lluy took him beyond the right back and in to the area. This tempted an ill-advised sliding challenge from Khalifa Sankare and an obvious penalty.
Townsend grabbed the ball and converted the spot kick with similar confidence.
Just six minutes later and Andros was in again. He picked up the ball out on the left by the touchline with space and time to size up the right back once more. He skipped past him with ease and dinked in a beautifully weighted cross towards Harry Kane. The striker used his height advantage to out jump the smaller Zisopoulos and head home.
It was looking comfortable at 2-0 and the switch of Townsend was key to opening Asteras up.
After making a good move to switch Andros Townsend to the left, Mauricio Pochettino made a curious change at half time.
Erik Lamela came off and Roberto Soldado on with the formation altered.
Harry Kane had been playing up top, but then dropped back in to the number ten role and played it as a second striker. This is nothing new; we’ve seen Pochettino play this way in home Europa League ties where he has used either Paulinho or Kane as the second striker off a front man such as Soldado or Adebayor.
However, the problem for Pochettino was two-fold.
This took a man out of our midfield, as Kane was playing too high up in the second half, almost alongside Soldado. It was also coupled with Asteras changing to a 4-3-3, which saw them press up, but also gain control of the midfield zone with the extra man.
The result of this was almost catastrophic with four glaring chances in the opening ten minutes of the second half.
Asteras were pressing through their front three, which often forced us to go back to the keeper and kick long.
Pressing was how their first chance arrived after just seconds of the restart, as Rolle stole the ball and fed in Tsokanis. Fortunately the forward could only scuff his shot wide.
However, they were now also in control of the midfield with the extra man and got easily between the lines.
The next chance saw Tsokanis get behind what was now a midfield four and have space to play in Rolle through our high line.
With Asteras doing this, we needed to drop our midfield and defence without having any pressure on the ball.
A third chance arrived from another long ball over the top, as our midfield was caught up the field again. And extremely unorganised.
Facundo Parra raced on to the long downfield clearance. He out-muscled Jan Vertonghen, slipped inside Fazio and then somehow managed to put the ball wide with just Michel Vorm to beat.
Another opportunity went begging as Parra then shot over. He was released again from Rolle having the ball behind our midfield and our defensive line being far too high up.
Having brought Soldado on, Pochettino couldn’t really take him back off given that only 8 minutes had passed. Harry Kane had done well, but Pochettino really needed to replace him with another midfielder in order to restore the balance and stop us being overrun in here.
Instead he took off Christian Eriksen and replaced him with Ryan Mason and Asteras continued to create chances.
Rolle got the ball again behind our midfield in the space in front of the defence and flicked a pass out to Pablo Mazza. The wide forward unleashed an exquisite shot that cannoned back off the inside of Michel Vorm’s far post. The closest Asteras had come.
It wasn’t until 75 minutes that Pochettino removed Harry Kane and brought on Paulinho; a change that should’ve come much earlier.
It still allowed Asteras a goal though. Paulinho played far too high up and Moussa Dembele wasn’t returned to his role screening the defence with Stambouli.
Paulinho and Dembele were caught up field as Ryan Mason was dispossessed, leaving five Spurs players in advance of the ball.
With our high defensive line and no pressure on the ball continuing, another long pass was sent forward over the top for Barrales to run on to.
The second half sub was matched up on the slower Federico Fazio and was going away from him.
Fazio nudged him from behind and Barrales, looking for the contact, definitely flopped as he felt any kind challenge. Fazio saw red for the second time in seven Spurs appearances and the floored forward converted the spot kick he earned.
Asteras Tripolis 1 Spurs 2 overall
This really was a game of two halves that saw us squeeze past a persistent Asteras team. The first we utterly controlled and were good for our 2-0 lead. The switch of Andros Townsend opened up the game from an attacking standpoint and had us in a great position.
The half time switch to remove Erik Lamela may have been with one eye on Stoke on the weekend, but didn’t have two eyes on the current situation.
It may have been a move to open up the game and go for a killing third, expecting Asteras to continue playing on the counter. However, the change really unbalanced the side, wasn’t rectified soon enough and we were almost made to pay.
Final score: Asteras Tripolis 1 Spurs 2.