Erik Lamela's fine form against Newport great news for Tottenham
LONDON -- Tottenham's 2-0 FA Cup fourth-round victory over Newport County on Wednesday was as routine as they come, but for Erik Lamela, it was significant. The Argentina international doubled Spurs' lead with his first goal since September 2016 and he was named man of the match for an impressive performance.
A lot has happened to Lamela in the 500-odd days since he last scored, in a 5-0 League Cup win over Gillingham. He has undergone double hip surgery; returned to Buenos Aires on compassionate leave after his brother was paralysed in an accident; spent time in Rome for treatment; lost his dog; regained fitness; and become a father.
He missed a total of 13 months, finally returning with an assist in the 2-1 defeat at Leicester in late November, and Wednesday's replay at Wembley was only the second time he has completed 90 minutes since.
"I was out for a long time and it was difficult for me, but I am back playing now and it is good to get a goal," Lamela said afterward. "We have a very good team and we need everyone fit to fight for places."
His goal -- a tidy finish from Son Heung-Min's pass -- capped a fine week for 25-year-old, who won the decisive and controversial stoppage-time penalty for Harry Kane's equaliser in Sunday's 2-2 draw at Liverpool.
Lamela made a difference at Anfield when he replaced Davinson Sanchez for the final 20 minutes, adding impetus to a Spurs side who were dominating possession but struggling to make inroads in the final third.
Newport was an altogether easier test, particularly after Dan Butler's unfortunate 26th-minute own goal had broken their initial resistance, but Lamela was at the heart of Spurs' best football on his first start since the third-round win over Wimbledon a month ago.
Playing as a floating No. 10 -- even after Christian Eriksen replaced Son on the hour -- Lamela drifted where he wanted, finding pockets of space, and his quick feet livened up an otherwise mundane encounter. He should have finished with an at least one assist -- Fernando Llorente headed his dinked cross wide from six yards late on -- and he should have scored at least one more.
Newport goalkeeper Joe Day denied him either side of half-time, the second a one-on-one, and he fired wide late. This is part of the reason why Lamela does not get in Spurs' best XI at the moment. Son is a far more clinical player, and the South Korea international has seized on Lamela's absence to make himself one of the most important players at Spurs.
But Mauricio Pochettino was vocal about how much they missed Lamela's guile and intensity while he was injured and, although this game was won as soon as he found the net, he did not stop snapping into challenges and harrying the Newport defence. His return has given Spurs precious options in the attacking third, which were sorely missed in the early months of the season.
Given the length of his injury, Lamela still has work to do to get back to his very best, but Pochettino has backed him to become an even better player when he does.
"Of course, it was a massive [injury] problem," the manager said. "It's never easy to come back and perform the way he was before. But he loves football, he loves training. His mentality is fantastic. He's going to easily recover his real level. Or improve because he's more mature. In a tough moment you learn a lot."
Lamela's display was one of a number of positives for Pochettino, who made 10 changes from Liverpool but was still able to name an XI packed with internationals. Toby Alderweireld made his first start since the 3-1 win over Real Madrid on Nov. 1 and looked as assured as ever playing as a left-sided centre-back to accommodate youngster Juan Foyth.
Alderweireld completed 90 minutes and is in contention for a start against Arsenal in Saturday's crunch North London derby, particularly after Sanchez's poor performance at Liverpool.
Danny Rose and Harry Winks also started Wednesday, having been missing since Boxing Day, with Winks finishing the match and Rose lasting 85 minutes. Neither is likely to start at Wembley at the weekend, but their returns give Pochettino options ahead of a run of games that also includes the two-legged Champions League round-of-16 tie against Juventus and an FA Cup fifth-round trip to Rochdale.
During that spell, Lamela will have more opportunities to continue his return to prominence after his best performance in more than a year, and Pochettino knows how crucial he can be.
"Always it's important to feel the net for offensive players and for him to play 90 minutes," the manager said of his compatriot. "I think it's a very important feeling for him. It's important for us because he's an important player."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.