Tottenham Hotspur 1 Sheffield United 0
On a cold, frantic, often rather fretful night, Tottenham drew enough sting from a room-temperature performance against a cussed and disciplined Sheffield United team to take a slender lead into the second leg of this Capital One Cup semi-final.
This was a cup tie best described as rugged, as for long periods of the game Nigel Clough's furiously well-drilled midfield pressed and sniped and denied Spurs, and in particular Christian Eriksen, any space to create chances for an attack led, to little effect, by the mooching Emmanuel Adebayor.
For all that, Mauricio Pochettino will be delighted to take a clean sheet and lead to Bramall Lane after a night when Spurs simply failed to get going but were rescued by a second-half penalty for handball by Jay McEveley, needlessly conceded, and duly converted by Andros Townsend.
The start of this semi-final first leg was delayed by 15 minutes due to the late arrival of the Sheffield United team bus, which reportedly took an hour and a half to travel from a north London hotel. For all that, and despite the creeping chill, the ground was unusually boisterous as United kicked off, noise levels lifted by a Cup-scale away end.
Spurs' team showed five changes from the victory over Sunderland, but it was still a recognisable first-ish XI with Eriksen starting to the left and Harry Kane foraging in behind the captain for the night. There had been some raised eyebrows before kick-off at the news Tottenham would be led by that well known team man Adebayor. The "EA: Captain, Leader, Legend" banner is no doubt still in preparation stage, but it was a logical move by Pochettino given Adebayor is joint vice-captain with Hugo Lloris, who stood aside here for Michel Vorm.
It was an energetic, if slightly congested, start to the game, with the visitors intent from the early moments on exploring via a series of lofted passes the tightest corners of a notoriously tight ground. Adebayor's first significant act was to flick a hand into Louis Reed's face as he held him off on the halfway line, drawing a furious reaction from the Blades bench and a booking from the referee Neil Swarbrick.
In between some sturdy challenges it took 21 minutes for the first real effort at goal to arrive, Jamal Campbell-Ryce fizzing a hopeful shot wide from the right wing. Moments later Townsend swung in a free-kick from the right and Erik Dier, unmarked, drew a clawing save from Mark Howard with a header that arrived at an easy height for the goalkeeper.
Townsend was having a mixed night, all eye-catching jinks and sprints cut with scuffed dribbles and misplaced passes. Alongside him Kane toiled manfully (here is a player who would toil manfully in the role of stadium handyman if he was asked) but the deeper role seemed a slight waste of Spurs’ most obvious cutting edge, the top-scorer scuttling about diligently on the wings while Adebayor lurked in the centre.
With 34 minutes gone Spurs finally made a chance from open play, Eriksen playing a lovely lofted pass down the centre that Adebayor controlled with gangling elan before shooting high under pressure from McEveley.
Stefan Scougall found a moment of space to shoot wide of Vorm's left-hand post, but with United pressing energetically in a 4-5-1 formation Ryan Mason and Benjamin Stambouli were harried relentlessly in possession. As the half closed Townsend and Dier combined again in exactly the same fashion. This time the header looped wide, and a scoreless first half against an unusually muted Spurs represented a job well done for Clough's team.
Before the game Clough had suggested it was “much easier to play” in these bigger games, his players lifted by the full house and the general sense of fizz. Here, though, it was United’s ability to press, harry and generally anaesthetise the occasion that stood out, with the promising Reed a composed presence in midfield.
As the second half continued in similar fashion Eriksen dropped a little deeper in search of space, and Kane remained energetically peripheral. At times Adebayor did chase and press United's defence. But Kane has led this team from the front this season and McEveley and Chris Basham will no doubt have been relieved to see him picking the ball up 40 yards from goal and surrounded by an impressively well-drilled red-and-white-striped midfield bolt.
With just over an hour gone and the game still as tight as the Highbury corner roundabout in rush-hour gridlock, the loudest cheer of the half to date came for the replacement of Adebayor by Roberto Soldado. And finally, after 74 well-disciplined minutes, United cracked.
With the Blades defence sat worryingly deep Jan Vertonghen clipped a lofted pass into the path of Soldado's meandering run near the goal-line. As the ball bounced McEveley inexplicably – not to mention needlessly – batted it out of play with his hand. It was a clear penalty, converted easily by Townsend, who as he had against Chelsea struck the ball hard and low into the corner.
Spurs, on balance, deserved the lead, if only for their monopoly of possession.