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Tottenham strike early against Middlesbrough to reach FA Cup fourth round

The Independent logo The Independent 6 days ago Luke Brown

So Tottenham Hotspur have not entirely forgotten how to play football after all. Three days after Liverpool’s siege of north London, which saw Spurs resort to an uncharacteristically dour approach that drew the first serious criticism of José Mourinho’s reign, his side survived a late Middlesbrough onslaught to reach the fourth round of the FA Cup. Southampton at St Mary’s now await.

a baseball player holding a football ball © Provided by The Independent

That a much-changed Middlesbrough made it so easy for Spurs, conceding two criminally slack goals before substitute George Saville pulled one back at the death, should not overshadow just important this result is for Mourinho. Spurs, who were without a win in four, are already out of the League Cup and surely have even less chance of winning the Champions League than last year. The FA Cup, then, is the club’s only realistic hope of the kind of success he has so brazenly promised.

Given Tottenham’s recent troubles, Jonathan Woodgate’s Middlesbrough would have hoped to have lasted longer than two minutes before conceding. Instead, hapless back-up goalkeeper Tomás Mejías gifted Giovani Lo Celso his opening goal, with another moment of defensive slackness affording Érik Lamela the opportunity to double Tottenham’s lead a few minutes later. So impressive at the Riverside, Middlesbrough did pull one back at the death, only to run out of time chasing an unlikely equaliser that would have forced thirty minutes of extra time.

Until Saville’s late strike, this had been one of the most routine performances of the so far erratic Mourinho era. And there was plenty to encourage Mourinho after such a difficult few weeks. Lo Celso and Lamela — deployed alongside one another in attack for the first time — impressed with their one-touch combinations. 20-year-old defender Japhet Tanganga was again outstanding. And, on the other flank, Ryan Sessegnon looked increasingly confident at left back, even going close to scoring with a decidedly Gareth Bale-esque drive and daisy cutter across the face of goal.

But, this being Tottenham, there was plenty to frustrate, too. The team’s lack of a focal point without the injured Harry Kane will surely need addressing in this month’s window, while Davinson Sánchez, so resolute against Liverpool, endured an evening to forget. The Colombian spent more time on his arse than his feet and offered Middlesbrough a route back into the game when he failed to clear a long punt forward. In nipped Saville, who took advantage of the retreating Tanganga and slotted past Paulo Gazzaniga’s half-hearted dive.

With Sánchez in so much trouble, it was then fortunate for Spurs that Middlesbrough had earlier been in such a charitable mood. The game was just two minutes old when back-up goalkeeper Mejías decided to deal with an admittedly overhit backpass by attempting to control the ball, rather than lumping it clear. It was the wrong decision. With Lucas Moura closing in on him like a homing missile Mejías panicked, his slack pass going straight to the feet of Lo Celso, who elegantly cut inside and rolled a confident finish into the corner of the goal. Remarkably, Mejías began his career at Real Madrid. He played for them once. On this evidence, it was an appearance too many.

Any hope Middlesbrough could claw their way back into this match like Spurs managed at the Riverside suffered a mortal blow a few minutes later. Again, the Championship outfit only had themselves to blame. Captain Jonny Howson failed to deal with a bouncing ball in the middle of the pitch, presenting Lamela with the chance to pinch the ball and scurry down the pitch. He sidestepped around Paddy McNair, shimmied beyond Dael Fry and clipped a neat finish across the face of Mejías, who at least on this ocassion was blameless.

REUTERS/Eddie Keogh © Reuters REUTERS/Eddie Keogh

There were numerous chances for Tottenham to score a third. Lucas Moura’s low drive tickled the outside of the post. Christian Eriksen saw a low free-kick saved. And Sessegnon even missed an open goal. But Middlesbrough held out and set up an entertaining finish when Saville pounced.

Tottenham, however, held firm. There is still much for Mourinho to fix. Yet this performance was enough for Spurs to scrape past Championship opposition and into the fourth round.

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