Goals from Roberto Soldado and Harry Kane see us win our first leg Europa League Playoff, as it finishes AEL Limassol 1 Spurs 2 in Cyprus.
Before the game Mauricio Pochettino had concerns over the quality of the pitch. However, he need not have worried as the superior skill and fitness levels of our lads ended up coming to the fore on a warm evening in Cyprus.
For Spurs fans watching back home it was more the quality of the stream, where more buffers were seen than there are at Waterloo station.
There were several keys to the game, but they revolved around the Cypriot side’s approach and eventually their conditioning, as it ended Limassol 1 Spurs 2.
Narrow and compact Limassol
Despite being at home, the Cypriot side set up to frustrate us and looked to hit on the counter.
Without the ball they sat deep, but also extremely narrow, looking to force us out wide. They tucked the full backs in close to the centre backs, as well as their wide men in midfield.
This showed itself in the early minutes, as Ben Davies got down the outside after a long switch in play out to him over the head of the Limassol right back.
Davies was in with everyone in the middle and pulled the ball back for Harry Kane. His shot was nervously palmed back in to the path of Roberto Soldado, but the Spaniard couldn’t react in time to wrap his left foot round it.
The indicator of how to break down Limassol was there for all to see, but we really didn’t exploit it after this early chance. The Cypriots remained in their shape and spent most of the first half frustrating us, whilst looking dangerous on the counter.
After seeing his effort saved, Harry Kane was the main protagonist in trying to find a way through a crowded Limassol defence.
There really wasn’t any space through the middle and the Cypriots were condensing the room between their lines.
Kane saw a long-range effort well saved by Karim Fegrouche in the Limassol goal, but he had to drive the ball through a crowd.
Later, he dribbled past the two central midfielders to gain some space on the edge of the box, but again saw Fegrouche save his shot.
The narrowness and compactness of the Limassol defensive effort remained.
Limassol counter attack
Whilst sticking to their compact shape, Limassol were looking to break at speed on the counter. This involved looking for through balls that forward Adrian Sardinero could run on to.
Whether by design or just coincidence, their best chances came by opening up our inside left channel. Jan Vertonghen was making his first appearance of the season and with no prior matches since being given a rest after the World Cup looked rusty.
The Belgian’s errant pass in to central midfield allowed the hosts to take the lead.
Mauricio Pochettino likes forward vertical passes from the back, but usually from the defensive midfielder, not the centre back.
Vertonghen’s weak pass was gobbled up and suddenly Limassol had 3v3.
Paulinho tried to help out, but as Vertonghen then stepped up to atone for his error, the ball ricocheted in to the space he had left.
Sardinero ran on to the loose ball through our inside left channel and was able to flick it past Hugo Lloris in to the corner.
Later in the half and Sardinero almost made it 2-0. Again it was the channel between Vertonghen and Davies that was the area of creation.
Carlitos played the through ball for him as Limassol broke at speed, but Hugo Lloris was lightning quick from his line to snuff out the opportunity.
The game continued with Spurs possession and Limassol in their compact shape, now content to defend their goal advantage and hit on the counter.
With them crowding the centre, Mauricio Pochettino made a couple of decent changes.
First up was to remove a player from the middle in Paulinho and replace him with Nacer Chadli who went out wide on the left. Paulinho was looking tired and needed to come off, but this also was a strategic switch designed to stretch.
Next up, Lewis Holtby was replaced by a bigger more physical player in the centre in Moussa Dembele. With the Chadli switch and one less player in the middle, Pochettino required a bigger, more physical presence in here to gain control and move the ball. Dembele provided this.
Both changes had an effect but not one that was altering the score line.
Pochettino’s third switch was a like-for-like swap as he removed Andros Townsend, who was playing as a wide forward, for Erik Lamela.
The difference this substitution made was the greatest, but just for the reason that by now Limassol were tiring and space was appearing between the lines.
Townsend was cutting inside and dribbling past players, but Lamela was drifting in and taking up much more central positions. With space opening up, this allowed him to run with the ball at his feet towards goal before choosing his option, one of his best assets.
Erik Lamela exploits the space
Lamela’s impact was almost instant. Limassol had been worn down by our possession and now there was space for the Argentinean to run in to.
Within 2 minutes of coming on, he raced on to a ball in the centre of the pitch. With their defence now not having so much of a shield from the midfield, Lamela could run at them.
He picked out a deft lobbed pass to Roberto Soldado and the Spaniard rifled home on the volley.
Striking the ball first time is one of Soldado’s best assets and a major reason why he scored so many goals in Spain. This was something we looked at in the article ‘How Roberto Soldado will change Spurs’ when he arrived last summer. If we can keep getting him these first-time shot opportunities where he can just fire, then the goals will start to flow.
Six minutes later and goal number two followed. Erik Lamela was between the lines with space to run forward again.
This time he laid the ball off to Harry Kane who was streaking past him. Roberto Soldado made an excellent run to take one defender away and Kane nipped the ball past another before firing in to the top corner. The strike was due reward for his tremendous efforts during the match.
Despite leading with it now being Limassol 1 Spurs 2 we still went after a third. This time it was Kane who found space between the lines.
His pass set Nacer Chadli free and a sliding Lamela scuffed the Belgian’s short pull back from the by-line wide.
At the death, Lamela was almost rewarded for his 18 industrious minutes of effort, as he skipped past players and in to the Limassol box. He saw his shot across goal saved, but it would have capped a brilliant impact performance.
Limassol 1 Spurs 2 conclusions
The introduction of Erik Lamela proved to be the difference, but Limassol were proving difficult to break down. The space was out wide to start with but we didn’t exploit it.
Mauricio Pochettino’s changes, along with Limassol tiring, opened up the space between the lines for us to change the game.
Erik Lamela then got in to this space and being able to run forward with the ball allowed him to pick his best passing option.
Harry Kane also played his part. He was our most likely scoring option and biggest threat in the first half. His passing and general approach play was also highly influential against a tiring Limassol after the interval.
After looking like we would be in a tough situation in our Europa League playoff tie, two goals in six minutes now puts us in a great position to qualify.
Final score: Limassol 1 Spurs 2.