Kulusevski’s double at Sheffield United seals Europa League spot for Tottenham

<span><a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:Dejan Kulusevski;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">Dejan Kulusevski</a> puts Tottenham in front at Bramall Lane.</span><span>Photograph: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images</span>

The final whistle served as a starting gun for Tottenham to head to East Midlands airport and board a special,Melbourne-bound, charter flight.

If Ange Postecoglou’s players were slightly underwhelmed by the prospect of a 25-hour journey to the Australian autumn, where an exhibition match against Newcastle United awaits on Wednesday, they at least travelled having rubber-stamped a fifth-placed finish.

That brings the prize of Europa League combat next season but, despite two goals from the excellent Dejan Kulusevski and stellar performances on the part of James Maddison, Son Heung-min, Pedro Porro and Micky van de Ven, the opening moments of the match video will offer continental strikers cause for optimism. Against superior opponents, Postecoglou’s team would surely have struggled to register a clean sheet after a distinctly dozy start was compounded by further, sporadic, defensive lapses.

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Accordingly the Australian departed for his “welcome home” fixture harbouring apparently slightly mixed emotions. “I’m not delighted with fifth place,” said Tottenham’s manager. “The Premier League’s a great challenge, particularly at a big club. But, contrary to my general demeanour I’ve loved every minute of the season. It’s been good, it’s been eventful, it’s been hard, a bit of everything.

“Even in our tough periods we’ve been competitive. But I’ve got some pretty lofty ambitions for this club and, until we achieve them, I’m not going to be smiling too much.”

Although only 14 minutes had passed before Van de Ven’s left-sided advance instigated the fluent attacking move that concluded with Kulusevski’s angled low left-foot shot swerving into the back of the net via the inside of a post, Tottenham began soporifically against the already-relegated Blades.

So much so that, before Kulusevski scored, Sheffield United showed rare signs of attacking menace. Ben Brereton Díaz hit the post with one shot and miscued another when well placed and Gustavo Hamer forced Guglielmo Vicario into a decent save and proved capable of unpicking the visiting backline with his passing. Hamer has Premier League admirers and Chris Wilder’s key midfielder could be sold this summer.

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Cameron Archer remains much coveted at Championship level but a forward who shone on loan at Middlesbrough from Aston Villa last year has disappointed in the top tier. It seemed entirely emblematic of Archer’s season that, just as he seemed set to equalise, Pape Sarr blocked his goalbound shot.

Had Archer done slightly better Spurs would have been left rueing the moments when Rodrigo Bentacur struck a post, Cristian Romero volleyed fractionally off target and Foderingham reacted superbly to deny Son, Porro and Maddison.

Despite Maddison, Kulusevski, Van de Ven (outstanding at left-back), Son and Porro sparkling in the unusually warm sunshine bathing Bramall Lane, Postecoglou’s team at times made heavy weather of things. Maybe some players had already switched into friendly mode. No matter; sterling work from Son and Van de Ven ensured the fallout from Maddison blocked shot resulted in Porro sweeping the ball into the top corner as he banished lingering fears of Chelsea potentially snatching fifth place.

Maddison’s low cross and Kulusevski’s assured finish put Spurs three up. It was the 104th league goal United had conceded. Small wonder they are super-glued to the bottom of the table.

“There was a familiarity about what happened,” said the United manager, Chris Wilder. “We missed some great early chances and, although Spurs have some great players, we were the better team. Then they scored.”

It could have been worse. When Son crumpled in the area after an altercation with Andre Brooks at a corner, Andrew Madley initially issued a red card, presumably for Brooks raising his hands to the forward’s face. A VAR review ensued and, after consulting the pitchside monitor, the referee decided there was no violent conduct and no dismissal for Brooks.

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That at least provoked a bit of animation from home supporters, most of whom left well before the end, but, perhaps tellingly, the most heartfelt round of applause came before kick-off.

When Chris Basham limped on to the turf United fans rose in appreciation of their stalwart 35-year-old defender who is still struggling to walk after sustaining an ankle injury against Fulham last October.

Basham has undergone two operations and, as he contemplates a new life off the pitch, would doubtless happily exchange the boredom of a 25-hour flight to Australia for the months of rehab stretching in front of him.