Eriksen keeps Tottenham’s heads above water
Tense 1-0 win over Inter Milan keeps qualification hopes alive
Tottenham’s Christian Eriksen celebrates scoring their winner. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Tottenham 1 Inter 0
Tottenham had to win and, as the second-half minutes ticked down and Wembley became increasingly fraught, they craved a single chance; a shot at Champions League salvation. Internazionale had been supremely obdurate and it was difficult to remember Spurs creating anything in open play after the interval. Was this the slow death of their hopes? One thing was plain. They needed something special.
In one of those moments that felt impossibly clear and perfect, they got it. There were 80 minutes on the stadium clock when the rejuvenated Moussa Sissoko drove forward and Inter defenders were drawn towards him. Then, he popped the ball square for Dele Alli, who took a touch, spun and teed up the overlapping Christian Eriksen.
The Dane had only entered as a substitute 10 minutes earlier but ice runs through his veins and he finished with sumptuous composure. The 1-0 was the dream scoreline for Mauricio Pochettino and his players because they now sit above Inter in the Group B standings on head-to-head results between the clubs. They must now match Inter’s result in the final round of ties which, in all likelihood, will mean them having to beat Barcelona at the Camp Nou. They remain alive.
Mauricio Pochettino had spoken beforehand about his relish for seemingly impossible missions and the key to the first part of this one was always going to be the players’ attitude. The pre-match hope had been that they could replicate the vim and vigour they showed in Saturday’s 3-1 win over Chelsea.
Against Chelsea, Pochettino started with Dele Alli in the space behind two strikers and his team tore into them from the first whistle. There was a different approach here and a different feel, a different tempo.
Tottenham’s respect for Inter was plain, a legacy of the 2-1 defeat at San Siro in the opening group phase tie. Alli’s starting position was nominally to the left of a midfield three but, as ever, he had license to bomb forward when Tottenham had the ball; to roam in between the lines.
He tried to bring the urgency to the press. With Erik Lamela drifting in from the right, Pochettino’s team were fluid. The manager had started Harry Winks, rather than Eric Dier, in front of the back four, with the idea being that Winks would bring assurance and energy in possession. The other selection surprise was the omission of Christian Eriksen from the starting XI.
Spurs pressed on to the front foot, with Inter happy to counterattack, and the first half was tight; a little edgy. Inter boasted latent menace up front and there was a reminder of it on 27 minutes when Ivan Perisic released Mauro Icardi with a header.
Icardi had the legs on Toby Alderweireld and the Tottenham defender knew it. He took the yellow card with a cynical foul. Moments earlier, Winks had put Hugo Lloris in trouble with a loose backpass and the goalkeeper got away with an even looser ball, which had been intended for Alderweireld.
Serge Aurier would win a vital challenge on the substitute, Borja Valero, inside the area at the end of the first half. Spurs’ margin for error was slim to nonexistent. They struggled to get in behind Inter before the interval but they still had their moments, none better than when Winks shaped a right-footed curler against the crossbar from 20 yards.
Lucas had shouted in vain for an early penalty after Matteo Politano dangled in a leg on him unwisely - it would have been a brave award - while Harry Kane laid on an opening for Alli after a driving run only for his teammate to lift high. Lucas also shot too close to Samir Handanovic.
Luciano Spalletti, the Inter manager, had brought a dreadful personal record to London: he had lost all seven previous matches in England with Roma and Zenit St Petersburg. There was one particularly chastening defeat: the 7-1 with Roma against Manchester United in the 2007 Champions League quarter-final.
Spalletti knew that the longer this game remained goalless the more the space might open up for them on the break. Inter’s performance was defined by defensive discipline and there were plenty of times when Spurs looked up to see a wall of black and blue.
Inter also threatened more in the second half. The anxiety among the majority in the 57,132 crowd was palpable. Pochettino had commented that Wembley can seem “empty” with only 50 to 60,000 inside. The atmosphere was certainly a long way from crackling.