Tottenham Hotspur vs Fiorentina match report: Spurs face long road as ruthless streak fades

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Fiorentina 1

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The Independent Football

If the final months of the season are going to test Spurs’ nerve and their legs, this was not a particularly good start.

Hosting Fiorentina in the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie, they could not maintain their early pace and slipped to a disappointing 1-1 draw.

That result is not fatal, but it does mean that qualification will require a victory, or a very high-scoring draw in Florence next week. That will require more luck, more effort, and far more of the resources that Tottenham were surely hoping to save up for the Capital One Cup final at Wembley three days later. Any hope of a comfortable stay in Italy next week evaporated here in a performance that lost all ideas and incision despite a good start.

Tottenham’s successes this season have largely been based on their fitness, strength and pace, for which they have been trained ferociously hard by Mauricio Pochettino since the summer. But here, for one of the first times this season, they looked to be physically lacking. The first 30 minutes were a relentless assault, after which Spurs could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up. After that, though, there was very little. Fiorentina manager Vincenzo Montella said that Spurs paid the price for their early pace, and that his team were likelier to score in the second half. He was right on both counts.

Fiorentina switched from a 3-5-2 to a 4-5-1 system at the break and controlled the whole second half. It was played at their pace, with David Pizarro and Borja Valero directing play in midfield. Pochettino made three changes – even introducing Harry Kane – but with little effect.

As much as the Europa League matters to Tottenham – it remains a possible route into next season’s Champions League – the performance was almost more worrying than the result. Spurs have a punishing schedule ahead of them: West Ham United here on Sunday, Fiorentina away on Thursday and then the League Cup final against Chelsea at Wembley three days after that.

For those games Spurs will need their whole squad on top of their games. Here, Christian Eriksen and Nacer Chadli looked notably under-par. Kane was kept on the bench for the first hour but did not make much of an impact when he came on. Pochettino must hope that it was one bad night, rather than a pointer to something else.

It all started so well, with Tottenham flying out of the traps and threatening to overwhelm Fiorentina with their physical force. Roberto Soldado was involved from the start, sliding a pass through to Nacer Chadli who ought to have beaten Ciprian Tatarusanu. Spurs need not have worried. Paulinho took the corner from the right, Soldado pulled away to the edge of the box and volleyed it perfectly with his right foot, skidding into the far bottom corner.

Fiorentina could not get into the game and Spurs had chances to pull away into a useful lead. Christian Eriksen skewed one over the bar from a Chadli pass, Soldado hit an audacious overhead kick straight at Tatarusanu. Paulinho had a shot saved from distance, Andros Townsend had one deflected wide.

European football punishes inefficiency, though, and Spurs paid the price. Fiorentina had been growing back into the game and Soldado scythed down Matias Fernandez with an authentic forward’s tackle. Fernandez whipped in the free-kick from the left, Hugo Lloris palmed it away and Jose Maria Basanta bundled it in at the near post.

That is the ruthlessness required at this level and when Spurs had a chance, just before the break, to re-take the lead they missed it. Tatarusanu saved Soldado’s header, Chadli could not quite get enough on the rebound, it hit the bar, the goal-line and bounced out.

The second half was a very different place, Spurs having already expended their efforts. They threw on Kane, Ryan Mason and Erik Lamela, occasionally threatened to flicker into life but it never happened.

Fiorentina looked more like winning this tie at the end, Mario Gomez nearly sliding a cross in at the near post, Matias Fernandez shooting just wide. Spurs must hope that too much damage has not already been done.