José Mourinho had warned Gareth Bale he would have to fight for his place in this Tottenham team. But even if he is still showing signs of rustiness four months into his second spell at the club as he spurned several chances, it was the Welshman’s equaliser that ensured Spurs avoided the embarrassment of being eliminated from the FA Cup by the team currently propping up the Championship.
Tottenham trailed to Fred Onyedinma’s excellent strike for Wycombe, and Bale had already passed up three good opportunities when he eventually found the net on the stroke of half-time, before late goals from Harry Winks and two from Tanguy Ndombele set up a tie with Everton in the fifth round. In truth, it was far more than they deserved after struggling to break down Gareth Ainsworth’s battling side until Harry Kane, Son Heung-min and Ndombele were brought off the bench.
Yet having seen Bale complete 90 minutes for the first time since he rejoined on loan from Real Madrid, Mourinho said he had been pleased with his performance. “He looked good, taking on players and scored the goal,” he said. “I never felt that he could not play 90 minutes, I never felt I had to take him off. That is good. I am happy.”
With half an eye on Liverpool’s visit on Thursday, Mourinho had made 10 changes from the side that defeated Sheffield United. But there was no place on the bench for Dele Alli, whose future at Spurs remains in doubt amid strong interest from Paris Saint-Germain in reuniting him with Mauricio Pochettino.
Ainsworth said he had shown his players highlights of the first-ever meeting of these two clubs in 2017 at the same stage of this competition, when it took late goals from Alli and Son to rescue Tottenham from an embarrassing exit at White Hart Lane to opponents who were then in League Two. Wycombe have since made it to the second tier for the first time in their 134-year history, having been promoted to the Football League in 1993 under Martin O’Neill.
Yet while Ainsworth’s side find themselves 10 points from a safe position at the halfway stage, their manager had warned they have improved significantly in the past four years and were hungry to match the club’s famous run to the semi-finals under Lawrie Sanchez two decades ago.
Having sailed past Marine in the previous round, Tottenham began this game in confident manner and should have gone ahead in the fourth minute when Bale somehow nodded wide from Lucas Moura’s corner. Another effort from Bale soon after that fizzed off target was an indication that he is not quite the player who earned a world-record move to Real Madrid.
The importance of those missed early chances was underlined when Wycombe went ahead after a well worked routine from a throw-in. Uche Ikpeazu showed immense strength to hold off the challenge of Toby Alderweireld and Joe Hart was left with no chance against the mysteriously unmarked Onyedinma. Another missed opportunity from Bale within minutes of the goal left Mourinho looking less than happy on the touchline. When first Moussa Sissoko and then Japhet Tanganga struck the bar, he could have been forgiven for thinking it was not Tottenham’s night. But with the deftest of touches from Moura’s cross that diverted it past Ryan Allsop, Bale finally got on the scoresheet just before half-time to settle his manager’s nerves slightly.
Despite the sub-zero temperatures, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg was sent out early to warm up in the break without his tracksuit and when he was introduced for Tanganga, Sissoko switched to right-back. Moura and Bale both spurned chances to give Spurs the advantage at the start of the second half before Allsop did well to parry Érik Lamela’s deflected strike. Mourinho decided it was time to call for the cavalry in the form of Kane, Son and Ndombele, while Ainsworth turned to his own talisman Adebayo Akinfenwa after Allsop had denied Kane.
Son came within inches of finding the breakthrough as Tottenham threw everything at Wycombe in an attempt to avoid extra time. The South Korean uncharacteristically rushed his next effort and watched in horror as the ball sailed harmlessly over the bar. Luckily for him, Winks was much more assured when the next chance fell his way after Allsop had again denied Kane. The England midfielder curled a sumptuous shot with his left foot from outside the area before Ndombele scored twice in the dying minutes to give the final scoreline a rather flattering look.
“It’s not a reflection of the game although they were fantastic at the end – I am flattered they had to put some big names on to get in front,” said Ainsworth. “We will take a lot of heart from this.”