Tottenham Hotspur punched their ticket to the play-off round of the Europa League by defeating Shkendija by a final score of 3-1 in North Macedonia on Thursday.
Jose Mourinho opted for a strong lineup overall while giving Harry Kane a rest by leaving him on the bench. Joe Hart made his debut for the club in net, protected by the back four of Serge Aurier, Davinson Sanchez, Toby Alderweireld and Ben Davies. Tanguy Ndombele and Harry Winks took up positioning in the pivot while Erik Lamela and Steven Bergwijn were on the flanks. Dele Alli, speculated to be on the transfer list, was restored to the lineup.
Spurs got off to a hot start, pressing the hosts and forcing a couple of turnovers before settling into possession. Son Heung-Min gathered the ball just outside of the box after some good passing and found Erik Lamela, who had a load of space to work with. He kept his calm and slotted it into the far post, punishing the bad defending to go up 1-0.
Much of the first half followed the same formula: Spurs make an attack, questionable defending but Shkendija somehow surviving, then the hosts cough up the ball. Rinse and repeat while sprinkling in some lackluster officiating, primarily around a penalty shout that Dele had around the 20th minute.
The attacking chances didn’t stop there. Spurs had two really good chances back to back, first with a Toby header on a set piece that went just wide. The second came on a good touch by Aurier to try and feed Ndombele, but a save was made to deny Spurs another goal.
Shkendija started off much better than the first, pressing a bit more and holding possession while giving up a couple of chances. Spurs had a golden opportunity to get the important second goal on a ball over the top by Winks to Lamela, but Coco couldn’t haul it in before it went out to touch.
The first shot on target of the match for Skendija was a special one. Valmir Nafiu collected a pass from around 20 yards out and fired an absolute rocket into the top right corner. Joe Hart, who had almost nothing to do in this match up until this point, had no chance to get it. Davies was late getting over to defend as well, but regardless; Shkendija had their equalizer and it was game on.
Mourinho opted to change the lineup not long after the goal, bringing on Giovani Lo Celso and Harry Kane for Harry Winks and Dele. Shkendija had a great chance to pull ahead on a headed effort by Besart Ibrahimi but the shot went wide of the net.
Spurs turned it on after that scare. Ndombele fed Aurier out wide in the 65th minute on a break. As Kane brought the attention on himself, Aurier crossed the ball and found an open Lamela. The Argentine could not direct the header on target, missing a huge chance to put Spurs up again. Kane had a chance just a couple minutes later on a header of his own, also putting his shot wide.
Perseverance paid off as Spurs finally got their go-ahead goal. Lucas Moura, who had just come into the match, was fed brilliantly by Lo Celso but had his shot parried away. The rebound fell right to Sonny, who buried it from twelve yards out.
Spurs defended well to keep Shkendija at bay while they built their attack again. Eventually, the gulf in talent was just too much for the hosts as Kane got on the end of a cross from Sonny. He made up for his earlier miss and buried the header.
Thoughts on the Match
- Outside of the first ten minutes of the second half, Spurs basically smacked a bad team around. Yes, we all clenched our butts when it was level but Spurs responded properly.
- Tanguy Ndombele went 90 minutes for the first time since December and only his second time under Mourinho. He also looked pretty great.
- Gio and Kane coming on in the second half made a pretty big difference.
- Ben Davies was bad and I can’t wait for Sergio Reguilon to play.
- Never sell Sonny. He’s just too good.
- Spurs will now face Maccabi Haifa in the play-off round as they defeated FC Rostov earlier today. Take care of business and get into the group stage.