Fiorentina 2 Tottenham Hotspur 0 (Fiorentina win 3-1 on aggregate)
The most disappointing thing for Mauricio Pochettino here, other than exiting the Europa League at the first knockout stage, was that it could have been so different. Tottenham's first of two crucial games this week will be remembered for a dreadful miss by Roberto Soldado as much as it will for Fiorentina's decisiveness in attack, La Viola advancing following a game that, like the first leg, started promisingly for Spurs but ended lamentably.
In many ways Pochettino's selection backfired. He made seven changes and left Harry Kane and Andros Townsend on the bench until the 63rd minute. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, and perhaps it will pay off against Chelsea at Wembley on Sunday but, as the goals flew in from Mario Gómez and Mohamed Salah during a devastating second-half spell for Fiorentina, there was an overwhelming sense that this was an opportunity squandered.
Soldado spurned a glorious chance when one-on-one with the Fiorentina goalkeeper Neto in the 29th minute – opting to pass when shooting was surely the better option – his dallying in marked contrast to the swift fashion with which Gómez and Salah dispatched their chances later in the game.
It was certainly not plain sailing for Tottenham early on, yet while there were defensive scares, on the balance of play they were the more dangerous side. Vlad Chiriches, starting at right back with Kyle Walker on the bench, almost let in Salah with a woeful pass, but the Romanian did cause problems of his own with his distribution from out wide.
Spurs first tested Neto in the 10th minute, although Érik Lamela's shot on the half-volley from 20 yards merely trickled through to the Brazilian. Stefan Savic, the former Manchester City defender, denied Christian Eriksen with a fine challenge in the area as Vincenzo Montella's side looked to exploit space on the counter-attack.
There were such opportunities. Tottenham were playing a high line and, at times, the communication between Federico Fazio and Jan Vertonghen appeared lacking. Salah was posing the greatest threat to Spurs, who themselves were getting significant joy wide left, where Nacer Chadli often managed to get beyond Micah Richards.
The key moment, though, came after 29 minutes. Soldado, who had been linking up well with midfield, broke the offside trap following a deft through ball from Lamela. The Viola defence was flat-footed – the game almost stopped he was afforded so much time – but instead of shooting the Spaniard tried to lay the ball off to Chadli and Neto claimed.
Fiorentina made Tottenham pay and, nine minutes into the second half, Gómez showed Soldado how one-on-one opportunities should be dispatched. Milan Badelj – who had squandered a glorious chance of his own just minutes earlier – pounced on a poor touch from Fazio and played in the German forward, who outpaced Ben Davies to race through and slot under Hugo Lloris.
It was a clinical strike from a player who has struggled for goals of late, and Montella’s side would have increased their lead soon later. Joaquin dispossessed Lamela in midfield and slipped in Salah, who again left Davies eating dust, only to be denied by an excellent save from Lloris, the Frenchman blocking with this legs and pouncing on the loose ball.
Spurs were on the rack and the change in momentum prompted a double substitution from Pochettino, Kane and Townsend brought on for Nabil Bentaleb and Chadli. Toni Jiménez, the goalkeeping coach, had already been sent to the stands by the referee as the tie began to ebb away from Spurs.
But it was soon all over. Salah picked the ball up on the right touchline in an advanced position and darted inside, playing a one-two with Gómez who flicked the ball back into his path. Salah entered the penalty area and Vertonghen, who had appeared to have quelled the threat, inexplicably failed to clear and granted Salah time to shoot following a cumbersome touch. The Egyptian gladly accepted the invitation and fired into the top corner in the 71st minute.
Eriksen tested Neto with a low drive and Soldado came close with a looping header late on, but the damage had already been done.