Familiar tale as Tottenham deliver gritty comeback to win Champions League group despite abject start

Same story: Tottenham once again delivered in the second half  (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)
Same story: Tottenham once again delivered in the second half (Tottenham Hotspur FC via Getty I)

Tottenham progressed to the Champions League last-16 as group winners after a last-gasp 2-1 win in Marseille, despite a largely underwhelming group stage.

Needing a draw to a progress but a late goal to win the group, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg’s belting finish with literally the last kick of the game sealed a result which was testament to Spurs’ grit and character, especially with banned Antonio Conte missing from the touchline and dressing room.

Another patchy display and comeback win will not end questions about Spurs’ performances but the result ensures that they are all but certain to end this half-season in a strong position to kick on after the World Cup.

In a ferocious atmosphere in the south of France, Spurs trailed to Chancel Mbemba’s header in first-half stoppage-time but rallied after the break, with Clement Lenglet heading home an equaliser before Hojbjerg’s late, late finish off the inside of the post.

Spurs were without Dejan Kulusevski, Richarlison and Cristian Romero, while Heung-min Son was forced off in the first half with a head injury.

But despite their shortage of firepower and the gruelling schedule, they battled through until the final second of stoppage-time, with their late winner ensuring they leapfrogged Eintracht Frankfurt as group winners and will have a favourable draw in the round-of-16 next year.

Spurs’ comebacks continue

The match followed a by now familiar pattern for Spurs, with a dreadful first half followed by a rally after the break.

In the opening 45 minutes, the visitors barely set a foot inside Marseille’s half until Mbemba deservedly headed the hosts in front in stoppage-time, and they mustered just two shots -- both hopeful efforts at 1-0 down. In fact, in the first half Spurs managed just six passes in the final third, all of which went backwards.

It was an even more abject opening 45 minutes than Saturday’s comeback win over Bouremouth, the 1-1 draw with Sporting and the defeat to Newcastle.

But just as in all those games, Spurs were much improved in the second half and had more than enough chances to win the game.

Conte has been clear that it is impossible for his players to compete at full intensity for 90 minutes, and another comeback does raise the question of whether the Italian is deliberately instructing his players to play 45 minutes games to conserve energy.

Or is it, as Kane suggested at Bournemouth on Saturday, that Spurs can only play with freedom once they are behind and have little to lose?

Whatever the case, it has worked spectacularly this week, as Spurs got their flat-lining season back on track with two big wins, but plainly does not feel like a sensible strategy going forward.

Tottenham were in real danger of being knocked out as they trailed at half-time (Getty Images)
Tottenham were in real danger of being knocked out as they trailed at half-time (Getty Images)

Bissouma catches the eye

The loss of Son in the first half with a head injury was a major blow for Conte, not least because it could rule him out of Sunday’s visit of Liverpool, too.

With Spurs’ running out of forwards, Bissouma was sent on for the Korean and put in his most encouraging display in a Spurs shirt to date.

The Malian was combative and composed at the base of midfield, snapping into clean tackles and recycling the ball well.

Spurs were much-improved on the ball with Bissouma on the field, and he provided a platform for Rodrigo Bentancur and Hojbjerg to get forward, which ultimately proved crucial.

Bissouma has underwhelmed since joining Spurs in a summer but his performance here suggested he may be turning a corner under Conte’s management.