It was not a night that will loom large in Tottenham Hotspur’s noble European canon, but they did their job. Often frustrated by an obstinate Royal Antwerp, a team of limited imagination who failed to trouble Joe Hart all evening but who were blessed with limitless pluck, Spurs topped Group J and ambled into the seeded half of Monday’s Europa League last-32 draw.
A Carlo Vinicius tap-in and a cute Giovani Lo Celso finish proved to be enough and for all that Spurs were often stodgy, Antwerp goalkeeper Alireza Beiranvand had a memorable evening. Spurs march on, but they will face much tougher opposition than Antwerp, LASK and Ludogorets.
The mathematics were simple enough. Both Spurs and Royal Antwerp had qualified for the Europa League knockout stage. An away victory or draw would mean the Belgians finished top and therefore be seeded for Monday’s draw. Having lost in Antwerp and drawn with LASK in Linz, Spurs needed victory to be seeded instead.
As is his natural inclination, Spurs head coach Jose Mourinho took few chances with his selection. The biggest guns were left on the bench in case of calamity, alongside a gaggle of greenhorns, but the formation was that of a team needing to score, so Gareth Bale was deployed as part of a three-man forward line.
Antwerp arrived fourth in the Jupiler Pro League fresh from Sunday’s crushing defeat to Genk. Romelu Lukaku’s younger brother Jordan was on the left side of a defensive quintet which oozed caution, while both Ritchie de Laet, once of Manchester United and erstwhile Norwich forward Dieumerci Mbokani were on a bench three shy of its allotted quota.
Against an opposition snapping at their heels like disenfranchised terriers, whose hard-pressing midfield was expertly marshalled by captain Faris Haroun, Spurs seemed unsure whether to evoke the blood and thunder of the glory, glory nights of yore, or to pass and move in the manner of 21st Century European aristocrats.
Stymied by their lack of midfield invention, Spurs initially knocked at Antwerp’s door with all the conviction of a bashful schoolboy about to meet his first girlfriend’s parents. Bale and Lucas Moura began to drop deep in search of possession and chances were at a premium. Lo Celso ran through unchecked and brought a fine save from Beiranvand just after the half-hour.
The Iran international would do better still just before the break when he foiled Vinicius after Moura played the ball of the half. Ominously for Spurs, Antwerp grew in confidence and impish striker Cristian Benavente’s mobility began to cause problems for Davison Sanchez and Japhet Tanganga.
Mourinho introduced Steven Bergwijn at half-time with a remit to bring more zing. Galvanised by Bergwijn’s pace, Spurs did have more about them and Antwerp began to linger over set pieces, much to the chagrin of the 2,000 increasingly restless supporters.