Wednesday 20 February 2019

Llorente woes remind Spurs of vulnerability without main men

Tottenham’s manager Mauricio Pochettino will be wondering whether Llorente is a viable back-up for Big Daddy Kane as he recovers from his ankle injury. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images
Tottenham’s manager Mauricio Pochettino will be wondering whether Llorente is a viable back-up for Big Daddy Kane as he recovers from his ankle injury. Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

A few miles east of Craven Cottage, in theatre land, understudies frequently get calls to stand in for the greats of the stage. Each lives in fear of turning in the kind of performance Fernando Llorente produced as Harry Kane's surrogate at Fulham.

Not that it mattered in the end. Headed goals from Dele Alli and Harry Winks - the winner, savagely late in the game - allowed Llorente to hide his own painful display behind a vital win for Spurs, who kept themselves in the title race.

But Tottenham's manager Mauricio Pochettino will be wondering whether Llorente (below) is a viable back-up for Big Daddy Kane as he recovers from his ankle injury.

Spurs missed Heung-Min Son here as much as Kane.

Erik Lamela, Son's proxy, has a habit of running across the pitch with the ball while his South Korean team-mate ghosts through gaps and in behind defences.

Son, an intuitive attacker, hard to track, could be missing until the Asian Cup final on February 1.

He joined the tournament in the group stage against China: a worthy mission, but one Tottenham fans will contemplate with heads in hands as they consider the joint-loss of Son and England's best striker.

This uproariously late comeback win was ultimately a boost for Tottenham's hopes of surviving the loss of two goalscoring stars.

Frankly, though, they had to carry Llorente to victory.

Even he will struggle to understand his own intentions when a Fulham corner swung into the penalty area on 17 minutes and Llorente turned his leg in a way that might have sent the ball anywhere.

True to the understudy's curse, the ball struck his calf and flew into his own net. Wrong end, old chap.

And at the right end, it was not much better.

The stand-out image of a day spent trying to impersonate Kane in the Fulham penalty area came nine minutes from time when Danny Rose curled in a free-kick and Llorente found himself in space in the six-yard box but glanced a weak header wide.

In the final minute he was on the floor in the same space when Maxime Le Marchand placed a hand on his shoulder and he threw himself down, only to have his claim waved away by the referee.

He was rescued from a long night of the soul when Winks nipped inside Joe Bryan to head Tottenham's winner from a Georges-Kevin Nkoudou free-kick.

Mockery is not the point of this report. At 33, Llorente has settled into the routine of a bench man with zero chance of displacing a household name.

He is the striker Spurs pray they will not have to use. Which must be hard when your CV extends to Juventus, Sevilla and Athletic Bilbao.

Cameos are no preparation for intense Premier League fixtures, even at Fulham's end of the table.

Last season Llorente scored five times in 31 appearances. This season he has four in 14, but three of those were against Tranmere in the FA Cup.

That hat-trick on January 4 might have persuaded Pochettino that he still had goals in him.

Since then, however, he has played for a minute against Chelsea and nine against Manchester United. No wonder Pochettino thought he was "tired" at the end of this game after missing "a few chances".

With no Kane, Son and Dele Alli, who limped off, Spurs are bound to face renewed scrutiny of last summer's zero-recruitment policy, though Lucas Moura is expected back this week.

Spurs are hanging on in this title race on the back of their manager's charisma and the togetherness of this squad.

"One thing we have is belief," Pochettino said, but Llorente's struggles on the pitch showed how stretched Spurs are to keep over-achieving in relation to Liverpool and Manchester City.

"It was an unbelievable finish," added Pochettino, whose side have won 11 out of 13 on the road in the league this season.

"The action is brilliant from Harry Winks, to recover the ball from a difficult position, he believes to score and arrives in the box. It was an amazing cross from Nkoudou.

"Sometimes in football, it is not tactics or formation, you have to believe."

Kane and Son had scored almost half of Tottenham's 46 league goals. The scorer of their 47th, Alli, now has a hamstring injury.

"It is in the left hamstring," Pochettino said of Alli's injury.

"I hope it is not a massive problem, but we will need to assess."

The Kane problem is complicated. No top striker outside of Llorente's age profile would be happy to sit on the bench each week and watch Kane take the starting shirt by right. But in the end this is no excuse.

If you expect a Llorente to jump straight to Kane's level, or something approaching it, you're asking for trouble, if not own-goals. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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