Five talking points from Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League victory over Newcastle United
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Ben Pearce reflects on Spurs’ win over Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium which secured Champions League football for the 2018/19 season
Harry Kane scored the decisive goal as Tottenham Hotspur secured a 1-0 home win over Newcastle United at Wembley and cemented their place in next season’s Champions League. Here are five talking points:
1. Mauricio Pochettino puts his faith in Moussa Sissoko
Tottenham were missing three central midfielders – Mousa Dembele, Eric Dier and Harry Winks – but there was still consternation among the club’s fans when Sissoko was named on the teamsheet tonight.
Christian Eriken had played in a deep-lying midfield role against West Bromwich Albion and that seemed a viable option again against Newcastle. Instead, Pochettino reunited the Victor Wanyama-Sissoko axis that had played together in the uninspiring 1-1 draw at Brighton & Hove Albion in April.
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Somewhat predictably, while Wanyama and Sissoko provided plenty of industry and muscle in the middle of the park – against a team with nothing to play for - there was precious little creativity in the first half.
The passing was far too slow in central areas and Harry Kane and Dele Alli struggled to get into the game. Newcastle consequently grew in confidence and nearly scored twice in the goalless first half.
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Given his general unpopularity among Tottenham’s supporters, when Sissoko conceded a free kick just outside his own box it seemed inevitable that Newcastle would punish him. Sure enough, Jonjo Shelvey whipped the ball past the wall and Hugo Lloris, only for his shot to cannon off the post.
Lloris was then forced to make a diving save to keep out Jamaal Lascelles’ header.
The solution for Pochettino seemed obvious – drop Eriksen into a deeper role alongside Wanyama and swap Sissoko for Erik Lamela or Lucas Moura.
However, he left Sissoko on until the end, giving him an unusual partner in Danny Rose for the closing stages.
If Spurs had lost then Pochettino would probably have panned for his decision to pick Sissoko, while the Frenchman would doubtless have become a scapegoat. But all’s well that ends well.
2. Jan Vertonghen struggles through the contest after quick return from ankle injury
There was relief on Thursday when Tottenham announced that the influential Belgian – probably Spurs’ Player of the Season - was available despite twisting his ankle against West Brom on Saturday. However, it was quickly became evident that the injury had taken a toll.
Vertonghen’s passing was unusually imprecise in the first half, giving Newcastle opportunities to break, and he also looked unable to reach top speed when chasing back.
It meant Rafael Benitez’s pacy strikers, Dwight Gayle and Ayoze Perez, caused constant problems in the opening 45 minutes.
Meanwhile Toby Alderweireld, one of Spurs’ best players in his last outings against Brighton and West Brom, watched on from the bench before eventually entering the fray because of an injury to Kieran Trippier.
Alderweireld’s introduction produced one of the loudest cheers of the night from the home fans – although his arrival coincided with news that Chelsea had drawn against Huddersfield Town, which probably had something to do with the outpouring of relief in the stands at that moment.
3. Harry Kane shrugs off a wasteful miss to hit the winner
After a poor afternoon at West Brom on Saturday, the Spurs striker also had an underwhelming first half this evening.
His surprising decision to pass to Trippier with a 30-yard free kick rather than shooting hinted at a lack of confidence, and when a mouthwatering opportunity then arrived he fluffed his lines.
Latching onto a long ball and waiting for it to drop in front of him in Newcastle’s box, an in-form Kane would have buried his finish, but he missed the ball.
Some players might have hidden after that, but Kane shrugged off the missed opportunity, stepped up to the plate again and became his side’s hero once again.
When the next chance came his way he slotted coolly into the top right corner. He, as much as anyone at Tottenham, deserves to be showcasing his skills and mental strength in the Champions League.
Kane’s strike also took him within three goals of Mohamed Salah in the race for the Golden Boot. He will certainly be raring to go against Leicester on Sunday, even though Spurs’ top-four spot is already assured.
4. Pochettino’s half-time team talk seems to have an effect again at Wembley
When Tottenham were last at the national stadium, hosting Watford, they produced a turgid, slow-paced first-half performance and only took a 1-0 lead into the interval because of a goalkeeping gaffe from Orestis Karnezis and three interventions from Lloris.
Spurs were immediately better after the break though, and Kane made it 2-0 in the 48th minute.
There was an element of déjà vu here against Newcastle. The Lilywhites were arguably fortunate to be on level terms after 45 minute but, again, they struck a vital blow within five minutes of the restart.
While question marks remain over Pochettino’s team selection, his trust in Sissoko and his tendency to leave substitutions late, he seems to have delivered two impactful and important half-time team talks in the last fortnight.
5. Job done with a match to spare
Tottenham’s fans were put through the wringer tonight, especially in an exceptionally nervy first half. Given the nature of Spurs’ recent performances, it is probably a good job that the season is ending this week.
But this victory, combined with Chelsea’s 1-1 draw with Huddersfield, means the Lilywhites are four points clear of the fifth-placed Blues with just one game to play.
Their Champions League status has been cemented for the third season in a row, and indeed Tottenham have now climbed to third place in the table, above Liverpool.
A third successive top-three finish would be an achievement to savour, given all of the home games have been played at Wembley.
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