Europa League to the rescue for Bale, Dele… and Tottenham’s season?


A 4-1 stroll past little-known Wolfsberger proved the perfect occasion for reintegrating areth Bale and Dele Alli to the Tottenham team.

Spurs had this match – and probably a place in the Europa League last-16 – sewn up inside 35 minutes, thanks in no small part to the returning duo.

Dele was involved in the build-up to the opening goal, chesting down a high ball superbly before Bale crossed for Heung-min Son to open the scoring.

Bale doubled the visitors’ lead with a wonderful piece of skill and finish – another reminder of his enduring quality.

Lucas Moura added a tremendous solo third, weaving through three defenders and finishing.

Spurs were less accomplished after the interval and Moussa Sissoko gave away a clumsy penalty, from which Wolfsberger captain Michael Liendl scored to give the Austrian side hope in the Puskas Arena, their temporary home for one of the biggest games in their history.

But half-time substitute Carlos Vinicius restored Spurs’ three-goal lead with a late close-range finish to cap an encouraging evening for Jose Mourinho’s side.

In assessing Bale and Dele, significant caveats about the quality of the opposition apply.

Wolfsberger are sixth of 12 teams in the Austrian Bundesliga, and the lowest-ranked side left in the competition. They are the kind of opponent you expect to meet in the group stage, rather than the knockouts.

Nonetheless, this was a professional and vibrant Spurs performance and there was little doubt it was enhanced by the inclusion of the pair.

They added a spark to a Spurs side that has looked moribund and lifeless across five defeats in their last six matches, and they looked like they had a point to prove.

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Dele was making his first start since the FA Cup win over eighth-tier Marine on January 10 and he finally looked like a player enjoying his football again. A trademark and mischievous nutmeg nearly led to the opening goal.

Bale was also having fun and he nearly doubled his own tally at the start of the second half, extending the goalkeeper with a low drive.

The condition of both forwards is likely to determine their chances of featuring in Sunday’s crucial League game at West Ham and Mourinho hooked Bale after 65 minutes and Dele with 12 minutes to play.

It feels important that both get more minutes against the Hammers to build rhythm and confidence but previously encouraging performances in the cups have been no guarantee of playing in the League this season.

Both, though, will hope this match could be a turning point in their stuttering seasons.


Europa League can save Spurs’ season

After the abject defeat to Chelsea earlier this month, Mourinho claimed his players “needed” the Europa League to restart.

It felt like an odd remark at the time but it is easy to see how this competition could reinvigorate Spurs’ season.

This win will have lifted the mood ahead of the visit to the London Stadium and the second leg is now little more than a formality, offering another chance for fringe players to build fitness and confidence.

After West Ham, Spurs face Burnley and Crystal Palace in the top-flight so there is no reason they should not be able to use this evening as springboard for a positive run of form.

Before the match, Mourinho spoke stirringly of winning the Europa League and competing in the European Super Cup and next season’s Champions League, and there is little doubt that this competition increasingly feels like the club’s best chance of returning to continent’s top table.

There will be far sterner tests ahead but English clubs who take the Europa League seriously – from Fulham and Middlesborough back in the day to Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United more recently – always tend do tend to do well, and Mourinho has experience of having won it with Porto and Manchester United.


Penalties becoming a bad habit

For a third consecutive game, Spurs conceded from a clumsily-awarded penalty in a scatty and slightly complacent second-half display.

There was little doubt about the decision as Moussa Sissoko stepped in front of Christopher Wernitznig and brought him down. Liendl calmly sent Hugo Lloris, who was impressive after a bad week, the wrong way.

The moment was an unnecessary blot on Spurs’ copybook and followed similar incidents against Everton and Man City, when Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg was the guilty party.

Buoyed, Wolfsberger hit the bar at 3-1 but Spurs weathered a mini spell of pressure and eventually restored their three-goal cushion.

Nonetheless, giving away cheap spot-kicks is in danger of becoming a costly habit and is yet another example of the defensive lapses which have coloured Spurs’ season and remain a serious problem.

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