Tottenham Hotspur vs. Benfica: 6 Things We Learned
Tottenham Hotspur fell to a 3-1 defeat to Benfica in their first-leg clash in the Europa League round of 16 on Thursday night.
Rodrigo opened the scoring for the Portuguese Liga leaders just under half hour in, with the forward making the most of the space behind the Tottenham defence to coolly curl past Hugo Lloris into the bottom corner.
Benfica captain Luisao put his side two-nil up 13 minutes into the second half. Taking advantage of the freedom granted him by his counterpart and supposed marker Younes Kaboul, the defender headed in unchallenged.
A Christian Eriksen free-kick reduced the deficit with Spurs looking re-energised for a period. That momentum quickly was sapped away, and Luisao added to Benfica's lead after being left alone at another set piece.
Spurs head to the Stadium of Light for the second leg next Thursday, but face an uphill task against a disciplined and imaginative Benfica outfit.
Here are a few things learned from the first leg between the two.
A Dawson-Less Defence Needs to Take More Responsibility
Even with club captain Michael Dawson playing, Tottenham would have had trouble against a Benfica attack whose honed familiarity and savvy worked them inside and out.
Kyle Naughton's ball-watching may have proved costly in allowing an unmarked Rodrigo to race through to score his team's first. But it was as much down to the quick thinking of Ruben Amorim in picking out the Spaniard's run as the left-back's neglect of the latter.
The second and third goals conceded were less tolerable on the part of the Spurs defence.
Stand-in skipper Younes Kaboul appeared to be the designated marker for Luisao. The powerful defender being beaten one-on-one would have been disappointing, but it was more a credit to the scorer. For Kaboul not to be even in the fight was inexcusable.
Luisao's second was not much better. After Hugo Lloris had saved from Benfica's first attempt from the free-kick, the Brazilian was again left unattended to, allowing him time to smash the ball in.
Kaboul may have been wearing the captain's armband, but a leader he is not. Spurs were unfocused and undisciplined at the back, with neither he nor Jan Vertonghen taking much of the responsibility required in ensuring the opposition players were accounted for.
There had been an inkling of this carelessness in the win over Newcastle United last month when—as this writer wrote following that match—"Papiss Cisse strolled in behind them for a free header seven minutes in. Fortunately for them, Hugo Lloris pulled off a reactive point-blank save."
As the likely centre-back pairing against Arsenal on Sunday, Kaboul and Vertonghen need to work harder to be prepared for these situations.
They can be when they want to. For the majority of the aforementioned Newcastle win, they were dominant in their defending together.
Still out injured, Dawson is not going to be there to remind them to do the less eye-catching, but necessary functions of their jobs. Spurs cannot afford them to shirk their duties again.
Quiet Paulinho Is Not Enough for a Spurs Team Needing to Make Some Noise
Paulinho had his moments against Benfica. But they were just that. Moments.
A part in the triangle of passes with Christian Eriksen and Aaron Lennon that led to Sandro blasting over the bar 14 minutes in. An attempted pass in that second half that might have put Eriksen through on goal, but for the offside Emmanuel Adebayor obstructing it.
At the heart of the Tottenham midfield, this was nowhere near enough to justify his presence. Nor has it been for the majority of his appearances since returning from injury in February.
The Brazilian's knack of popping up in the right places in the final third is a desirable trait in a midfielder. It has resulted in goals throughout the season, most recently against Newcastle United and his well-taken equaliser against Hull City.
Right now, though, these instances are not occurring frequently enough to make up for the quietness that makes up the rest of his displays.
Perhaps Paulinho is feeling the strain of his first season in England. Adjusting to the rhythms of the Premier League is not simple either.
Yet while the hope should remain he will become a big player for Tottenham down the line, the present demands more.
Eriksen's Influence Is Demanding a Central Role Again
The option manager Tim Sherwood might like to look at in central midfield instead of Paulinho—certainly if Mousa Dembele is unavailable, and perhaps anyway—is Christian Eriksen.
Selected again after a back injury caused him to miss Tottenham's last two matches, Eriksen's delightful free-kick will be the lasting memory of an otherwise forgettable night for the North Londoners.
The goal was not just easy on the eye, though. It was in keeping with a level of quality the Dane is increasingly showing and best measured by the influence he is having on his team often being behind their best moments.
Eriksen linked nicely with Adebayor, Paulinho and Harry Kane throughout the game. A one-two with Kane led to the young striker winning the free-kick Eriksen would score.
Despite this, there was only so much Eriksen could do out on the left. Against certain opponents, his incisiveness in passing and dribbling can be a welcome counterpoint to the threat of speed posed by Lennon on the opposite flank.
But with Spurs struggling to create many genuine goalscoring opportunities, they might have been better served with Eriksen instigating moves centrally.
The concern here is that the 22-year-old is not especially geared for the battles associated with the position.
Though it's true he would need to better adapt to the all-round demands placed upon a centre midfielder proper, he has shown is not unwilling to get stuck in. He got back to win the ball after Paulinho lost it in the first half, matching him for the same success rate in attempted tackles—as per Squawka.com.
Luka Modric—in many ways Eriksen's stylistic predecessor in North London—had a similar knack for using his reading of the game to suss opponents out. Mostly, though, he showed how a hard-working playmaker of sufficient talent could still thrive in the thick of things.
Sherwood tried Eriksen in centre midfield early on in his tenure. The time may have come for him to try again.
Kane Impresses Again but Chance to Establish Soldado Momentum May Have Been Lost
The low point of Harry Kane's night was being dispossessed in his own half having come in search of the ball. It did not immediately cost Tottenham as Lloris saved the subsequent Benfica shot. But the Lisbon club's second goal did come from the subsequent corner.
No one should blame Kane for Spurs conceding here (as already noted, there was another more culpable). The striker was one of his team's better players on the night.
Kane won the free-kick that led to Eriksen's goal. He exchanged passes with the left midfielder, then charged at the Benfica defence before being brought down. The 20-year-old's daring here was in keeping with an all-round confidence in his work that grew as the game went on.
Maintaining possession with no shortage of strength and at times skill, Kane was proving to be one of Spurs' more successful attacking outlets by the time he was substituted. Maybe he was tired, but they probably suffered more for his withdrawal more than they would have had Adebayor been substituted.
Although Kane impressed, it was still a surprise not to see Roberto Soldado starting.
What Sherwood has in mind for his attack against Arsenal will be most interesting—particularly as it could hint at his preferred shape for it moving forward.
Jesus' Benfica Are Up for the Task Despite Focus Being Elsewhere
"It's an important game but the league is our great goal, I won't change the focus from that," so said Benfica manager Jorge Jesus in his pre-match press conference, here via Sky Sports.
"The priority is to be champions again, and taking this idea into account, the league is our priority although other competitions are important too."
Jesus' Benfica side proved largely comfortable against Tottenham. Partly an indictment of the Premier League club's performance against a team whose focus is elsewhere, it was also testament to the Portuguese champions' class.
The Eagles squad has undergone change since their Europa League final loss to Chelsea last season, but their aptitude for continental competition remains. They may have just missed out on making the Champions League knockout stage, but they are a serious threat for Europe's secondary competition.
Winning the North London Derby Has Just Become Even More Important
In one week, Tottenham's season may have properly unravelled.
Last weekend's loss to Chelsea has diminished the likelihood of them finishing in the Premier League's top four and qualifying for the Champions League. Thursday's defeat to Benfica has seriously dented their hopes of at least enjoying a good run in the Europa League.
Sunday's North London derby is definitely not just about keeping their chances of finishing fourth alive. It really has become a vital opportunity to get a much-needed morale boost for Sherwood's side.
Beating Arsenal could revitalise a campaign that is threatening to peter out. At the very least, a positive performance is required, one that shows the kind of direction Spurs went to head in for the remainder of the season.
If not, it is very much a case of going back to the drawing board and making plans for 2014-15. But right now, August seems a long way away.
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