All it took Tottenham Hotspur to start playing, and to save their season, was a quick look into the abyss. Spurs started this game poorly, and when Roman Zozulya headed Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk 1-0 up early in the second half, Tottenham needed three goals to stay in the Europa League, to stay fighting for something this year.
But that is precisely what they did. The desperation turned Spurs into a whole new team, who ran through Dnipro with three goals in 13 minutes, first from Christian Eriksen, then two from Emmanuel Adebayor. It was Spurs' best spell of football this season, enough to win and to warrant their last-16 matcah with Benfica.
It came after 146 minutes of ponderous, predictable and edge-free football, and with Dnipro quite deservedly 2-0 up on aggregate. At that point, Tim Sherwood could have been forgiven for wondering where exactly his Spurs season was headed. His team did not look like scoring one goal, never mind three, but then how much is there left for them this season beyond the Europa League?
Tottenham needed to stay in Europe. They are six points behind Liverpool but have scored half as many goals, and no-one who has seen the two teams recently would back Spurs to overhaul Brendan Rodgers' side and finish fourth. Had they gone out, Sherwood would have been left with just 11 games this season before another summer of uncertainty at White Hart Lane. The year would have ended with a whimper.
The players, though, seemed to sense this. White Hart Lane is not always easy when Spurs are behind, but here the players responded with such ferocity and courage that they carried the whole crowd with them. Their season was at stake and they started to play. Dembele hit a volley just over the bar before Eriksen slid through Soldado, whose finish was ruled out for offside.
Spurs had woken up, and soon enough they were level. Adebayor, a new player in the second half, won a free-kick from Jaba Kankava 20 yards out, on the left hand side. Eriksen curled the ball with his right foot into the near bottom corner.
The tie was back on, although Dnipro could have taken it away from Spurs again, Konoplyanka hitting the post from 30 yards after a clever free-kick move. But they could not cope with the pressure, though, and when Zozulya thrust his head at Jan Vertonghen, inviting him to go down, and the referee to send him off, they effectively ended their own evening.
Tottenham had the momentum and Adebayor, fully engaged, was ready to end the game. Eriksen held the ball on the left, cut in, paused, and curled in a cross to the far post. Adebayor darted in ahead of Soldado, stretched out a leg, and scored.
No goal has ever felt more imminent than the third, which came four minutes later. Zeki Fryers hit a diagonal towards Adebayor, who, as only he can, made the remarkable look simple. He nodded the ball over Yevhen Cheberyachko, skipped past him and lifted the ball over the goalkeeper.
That was the third and, despite some late scares, it was enough to send Spurs into the last-16. Just why it took Tottenham 146 minutes of this tie to start playing is just another of this side's elusive mysteries. They were dismal until Zozulya's goal, worse than they had been in the first leg in Ukraine, just as bad as in their 1-0 defeat at Carrow Road on Sunday.
Sherwood, understandably, had changed the team from that day, bringing back 4-4-2, Eriksen, Soldado and Sandro - whose last appearance was in Andre Villas-Boas' final match. Spurs were meant to assert themselves on the game but, beyond Soldado's elbow on Artem Fedetskiy, they had little impact.
Dnipro were strong and canny enough, in defence and midfield, to hold onto their first-leg lead and the only times Spurs looked even mildly dangerous were when Eriksen drifted inside to influence play, like a one-man search party trying find their missing strike-force. He had a shot from the edge of the box deflected over and tested Denys Boyko better than anyone else in the first-half, when his 35-yard free kick induced a save low down to the goalkeeper's right.
That was the extent of Spurs' first-half threat and Dnipro were far more dangerous breaking at pace. One quick throw sent Strinic in behind, and Kyle Naughton's tackle needed to be perfect. Matheus, so lively in the first leg, went down in the penalty area, in the vicinity of Michael Dawson, but referee Antony Gautier gave nothing.
When Zozulya headed Dnipro into the lead early in the first half they must have felt very confident, but even after Spurs' surge they had late chances. Konoplyanka forced two late saves from Lloris, including from a 30-yard added-time free-kick. But Spurs, despite themselves, had done enough.
Man of match Adebayor.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee A Gautier (France).
Europa League last 16 draw
AZ Alkmaar v Anzhi Makhachkala
Ludogorets v Valencia
Porto v Napoli
Lyons v Viktoria Plzeň
Seville v Real Betis
Tottenham Hotspur v Benfica
Basel v Salzburg
Juventus v Fiorentina
Ties take place 13 & 20 March
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