Spurs break down Boro resistance to cling to leaders' coat-tails
Tottenham Hotspur 1 Middlesbrough 0
Tottenham Hotspur knocked and knocked and finally broke down the Middlesbrough door, a penalty from Harry Kane preserving their outside chance of disturbing Chelsea at the top of the table. There was no doubt that Spurs were the dominant team but Boro made it darned tough to prove on the scoreboard.
Mauricio Pochettino knew this match would test the depth of Spurs' human and mental resources. How would the absences Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen affect their defence? And how would the increasingly faint sight of Chelsea's exhaust fumes affect their belief that they can overtake the league leaders? Or maybe their imperative now is to pull away from the other chasers?
Either way, after Tuesday's anaemic draw at Sunderland, the Tottenham manager needed to see a demonstration of iron conviction here as well as a cutting edge, especially as Middlesbrough, despite being only one point above the relegation zone at kick-off, are particularly stubborn travellers, with only Chelsea having conceded fewer away league goals this season prior to this encounter. Mind you, Spurs are exceptionally inhospitable hosts and had beaten the past nine visitors to White Hart Lane.
Spurs started like men on a mission - but so did Boro. And the visitors were the first to threaten, as Adama Traoré hurtled down the right wing and crossed for Álvaro Negredo, who headed over from eight yards. The Boro manager, Aitor Karanka, had explained during the week the reason for his habit of switching Traoré's position at half-time in recent matches: apparently the 21-year-old is so carefree in tactical terms that Karanka likes to have him on the flank closest the dugout so that instructions can be dispensed as needed. But here Traoré began on the far side of the pitch, presumably because the manager believed either the player had become more savvy or that his ability to torment Rose's deputy, Ben Davies, could offset any damage he might do to his own team's shape. The opening minutes, then, went according to Karanka's plan.
Spurs had their own schemes and soon set about implementing them. They began to enjoy the lion's share of possession but Boro defended tigerishly, although Toby Alderweireld's header from a corner hit the post.
Anxiety grew among the home crowd in the face of Boro's disciplined resistance and Spurs' imprecision when push came to shove. Kane could have eased nerves in the 35th minute but headed over. By half-time the home fans could have been forgiven for fretting about another frustrating draw. Or worse.
Pochettino changed neither his personnel nor his team's approach during the break, seemingly convinced that persistence would pay. There were sceptics in the crowd, however, and they groaned in the 48th minute when Kane spurned a shooting chance and lost possession. Boro's defenders were proving equally defiant: closing, blocking and clearing like their Premier League lives' depended on it. But then, in the 56th minute, a sleight of foot in the box by Son Heung-min duped Bernardo Espinosa into a foul. The referee pointed to the spot; the crowd held its breath; and Kane held his nerve to send Victor Valdés the wrong way and the ball into the net.
Spurs did not bask in their relief. They chased another goal. Christian Eriksen brought brilliant stop by Valdés. Then the irrepressible Son struck the outside of the post after being sent clear by Dele Alli. Spurs had Boro in a headlock and refused to let go - until a punt forward in stoppage time nearly led to an equaliser, only or Marten de Roon to drag a shot wide from 10 yards.
Sunday Indo Sport