Christian Eriksen spares Mauricio Pochettino, keeps Tottenham's European hopes alive
LONDON -- Three points from Wembley on Tottenham's 1-0 win over Inter Milan in Group B of the Champions League on Wednesday evening.
1. Eriksen keeps Spurs' Champions League dream alive
The Champions League dream is still alive for Spurs, but they are certainly negotiating Group B the hard way. Christian Eriksen's 80th-minute winner means they leapfrog a moderate Inter Milan side into second place and, if they can pull off the small matter of a win at Camp Nou in a fortnight, a place in the last 16 will be guaranteed.
This tense, scruffy victory felt like an act of brinkmanship, not least because Eriksen and Son Heung-min had both started on the bench just days after destroying Chelsea in the Premier League. But Mauricio Pochettino's decision-making was borne out and their fate now lies in their hands.
Tottenham began briskly, Harry Kane seeing a cross-shot repelled by Samir Handanovic and Lucas Moura claiming a penalty after going down under Matteo Politano's challenge. Nothing was given and Spurs kept on coming, Dele Alli firing narrowly over after a fine, slaloming run from Kane.
Yet their momentum slowed and it was not until the half-hour mark that another opportunity arose. It was not a bad one, coming after Alli cleverly dummied a Moussa Sissoko pass from the right but Lucas' shot was too close to the Inter keeper. Seven minutes later they came within inches of going ahead -- Harry Winks beating Handanovic all ends up from 20 yards but seeing his effort shudder the crossbar.
The final salvo of the opening period was Inter's, neither Mauro Icardi nor substitute Borja Valero managing to get a shot away after a dangerous ball from the right, and the sense at half-time was that Tottenham would need to produce significantly more.
Spaces began to open up as Spurs pressed after the break. Icardi wasted one promising counter-attack, chipping woefully wide with the home defence stretched. Then, just after the hour, three players narrowly failed to reach an Ivan Perisic cross at the back post. Son and Eriksen were both introduced before the 70th minute and, with the latter's first touch, he clipped in a free kick that Jan Vertonghen headed agonisingly wide.
He soon offered significantly more. Inter, who would have knocked Spurs out with a draw, came close to settling the matter when Ivan Perisic's angled drive was parried by Hugo Lloris, but then Eriksen struck. It came from a beautiful move, Sissoko surging from deep and passing to Alli, who spun and laid it on a plate for Eriksen. The Dane made no mistake with his finish and despite some nervy moments, Spurs live to fight another day.
2. Pochettino comes out clean after Eriksen gamble
Slice of fortune or masterstroke? Pochettino will surely have to answer that question after this but, however you viewed his decision to omit Eriksen from the start, nobody can question that it paid off. They had laboured for the majority of this game and, when the Dane was summoned with 20 minutes left, Wembley was ridden with nervous tension. Inter were hardly in trouble but Eriksen immediately helped Spurs step up a gear and his winning goal was the contribution of a man who is, these days, one of the best big-game players on the planet.
Pochettino's team selection offered different perspectives at the outset. Was his change, also leaving Son on the bench, a gamble too far on a potentially decisive evening or simply sensible management of a squad that now has something close to the depth he demands? Early on the second of those interpretations seemed fair, with their replacements looking lively. Lucas buzzed around to good effect on the left and Erik Lamela produced some incisive runs from the opposite flank. But the spark faded and, with clear chances at a premium, it became clear quickly that Tottenham are simply a far better side with the energy and verve of Eriksen and Son.
The latter was introduced in the 62nd minute, replacing the labouring Lucas, and Eriksen followed in Lamela's place. When Eriksen delivered that perfect free kick for Vertonghen, it was hard not to draw a direct contrast with a similarly-positioned set piece that Lamela had wafted out of play in the first half. He is a top-quality operator, inventive and precise in everything he does, and that was shown in the wonderfully-timed run and finish that has blown this group wide open.
Next up for Tottenham is a North London derby with Arsenal on Sunday. Pochettino can now prepare for that one with a relatively well-rested star playmaker and secure in the knowledge that their Champions League campaign remains alive. Perhaps it was method, not madness, after all.
3. Inter now face nervous final matchday
Inter must wait to see whether they will contest the Champions League knockout stages for the first time since 2011-12 and, while they still look favourites to progress, it is hard to see them making a genuine play for the trophy. This was not a high-quality game and it seems clear enough that both teams sit in that tier just below Europe's biggest and best. They both sit third in their leagues and, at this level, it shows clearly enough -- not that this will temper their joy if they eventually make it out of such a tough group.
From the outset, Inter looked like a team that only needed a point. It took them 15 minutes to string any serious possession together and, when they did, the intention was clearly to take the sting out of a feisty Spurs start. By the half-hour mark it was a stretch to say that they had assumed control but they had managed to slow things down to their liking and forced a couple of nervy moments, Hugo Lloris causing flutters when one pass out from the back only reached Perisic. Tottenham flickered before the break but, Winks' effort aside, Inter looked relatively comfortable.
Luciano Spalletti's side had half-opportunities to put Tottenham to the sword in the second half and will regret not taking them. Although they were hardly conceding chance after chance, they never looked good enough to lock the game down, to engage in the time-honoured Italian method of Catenaccio. There was always the sense that Tottenham could sweep them aside if they ran through the gears and eventually they did.
They forced a late save from Lloris, who saved from Danilo D'Ambrosio, but no equaliser was forthcoming and they must now hope for a hand from Barcelona. Inter were not especially bad here but they were nothing to get excited about, either: they are a competent enough side with little real speed or attacking pattern, and do not look especially long for this tournament even if they make it through.