Gent 1 Tottenham Hotspur 0
If this was Tottenham Hotspur's grand response to that anaemic defeat at Liverpool over the weekend, then Mauricio Pochettino would be forgiven fretting over how this campaign will play out over the months ahead. A team who pride themselves in a scintillating, aggressive approach has rather lost its way of late with their latest slack performance culminating in another worrying defeat. This Europa League tie can still be claimed back at Wembley next week, but it is the Belgians of KAA Gent who go into the return fixture with the initiative.
Pochettino would have expected so much more. He had picked nine of the starters from Anfield, senior players having made clear their desire to make immediate amends from that feeble showing on Merseyside. Yet the visitors only offered a sporadic threat themselves and, whatever system the management imposed at the back, there is new-found uncertainty in their defending. This had been an opportunity to put things right. As it is, they return home with frustration mounting and more doubts taking hold.
And to think the locals had treated this high-profile occasion as a timely release from domestic toils. Hein Vanhaezebrouck's team are languishing eighth in the Belgian topflight with a bloated first-team squad, a wretched away record and two wins in 10 matches leaving their hopes of qualifying for European competition next term hanging in the balance. This was a chance to remind all comers of their qualities and, for long periods, they tore into the Premier League team with gusto. Kenneth Saief was a nuisance down their left, Thomas Foket just as pesky on the right, while Jérémy Perbet offered the occasional classy touch and the man-mountain in defensive midfield, Anderson Esiti, crunched into anything that moved. He seemed more comfortable in destructive mode, with his distribution rather more unconvincing.
Spurs felt stretched at times. Danijel Milicevic should have done better in the opening minute only to air-kick from the edge of the area, while Toby Alderweireld summoned a block from Saief and Samuel Gigot curled an awkward attempt just wide with Hugo Lloris static. The visitors, for all Mousa Dembélé's swagger in the centre and the eagerness of Harry Winks at the Belgian's side, over-elaborated too often. On the rare occasions they eased within sight of goal, the final pass or delivery went awry. Dele Alli belted one shot just wide and had another suffocated by three home defenders, but Tottenham lacked fizz.
Pochettino sensed as much, pacing his technical area wearing that expression of dissatisfaction that has become a little too familiar over recent weeks. His side had to be more imposing after the break – it was hard to contemplate they could actually prove meeker – and a tweak to their system, employing Ben Davies as a third centre-half and pushing Alli closer to Harry Kane, appeared to offer them impetus. Winks was soon exchanging passes with Kyle Walker, with Alli crumpling to the turf under a challenge in the penalty area and the loose ball running on to Kane. The striker spun expertly away from two defenders, only for his shot to clip the outside of a post.
That should have signalled the visitors asserting some control. Instead, their concentration wavered at the other end. Neither Saief, eking space from Walker, nor Nana Asare could be checked before the Gent captain liberated Milicevic to the byline. The Bosnian drew Winks, Alderweireld and Davies to him before pulling his centre back across the Spurs players, the ball flicking off the Welshman before reaching Perbet. The striker had to readjust his feet but his finish was dispatched crisply into the far corner, through Moses Simon who was loitering on the goalline. Had he mustered a touch then Gent's opener might not have stood. Spurs players were too busy eyes down in disappointment to complain.
Stefan Mitrovic and Perbet, denied by Davies' stretch and flicked header, might actually have added a second with Spurs suddenly panicked, and it took Hugo Lloris' fine touch to deflect Milicevic's drive from the edge of the penalty area on to a post. There was too much defensive sloppiness in Tottenham's approach for comfort, and too little zest in their attacking place. That upbeat rhythm the manager so craves has drained from their play. Even Sunday's trip to Fulham in the FA Cup fifth round feels decidedly awkward while uncertainty grips.