With wantaway Christian Eriksen again confined to the bench, Giovani Lo Celso shone on his first Tottenham start to give Spurs a first away win in six months over Red Star Belgrade and, more pertinently, a glimpse into a future without Spurs’ assist-making talisman.
Eriksen made no secret of his desire for a new challenge in the summer, with a move to Real Madrid to join fellow Premier League defector Eden Hazard in the Spanish capital looking more and more likely as the summer transfer window neared its end.
However, the dream move never materialised and Eriksen stayed put, but rather than continue where he left off last season to keep the suitors entertained, with the 27-year-old has been ineffectual in the extreme so far this campaign.
Mauricio Pochettino rejected any criticism of his midfield dynamo in his pre-match conference in Belgrade, insisting the Dane is as “good as he was when we signed him”, but the Argentine’s actions spoke louder than his seemingly disingenuous words as he again left Eriksen on the bench for a clash which could make or break Spurs’ Champions League campaign.
Red Star, in their famous Marakana Stadium – nicknamed such as it used to hold 110,000 like the Brazilian version and the venue of the famous Antonin Panenka penalty in 1976 – are no pushovers.
Serbian football may have been in decline since the harrowing Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s – Red Star won the 1991 European Cup but Yugoslavian clubs were banned from European competition during the war until 1997-98 – but at home, as a famous victory over eventual champions Liverpool showed last season, they can still cut it against the very best.
The omens were not good for Spurs. No English side had ever won at the Marakana, Red Star had tasted defeat just twice in their last 21 European home ties and Spurs were without victory on the road since Lucas Moura’s last-gasp winner at Ajax in May’s semi-final second leg.
Lo Celso, though, orchestrated things from the off in the hostile setting, with plentiful “suck you, Spurs” bellowing down in booming Serbian from the terraces not deterring a Spurs side who looked assured and as vibrant as they had all season.
The man once dubbed the “ruby of Argentina” made his intentions clear with an incisive pass into Heung-min Son for Spurs’ first opening, which Son dragged wide, and was certainly making the most of his chance, having been forced to wait for his first start due to injury.
Lo Celso remained at the heart of everything, showing great tenacity to win the ball back and create the opener for Spurs. The melee that ensued would been a popular watch on Crap 90s Football’s twitter account, with the woodwork struck twice and an effort cleared off the line in the scrappiest of fashions before Lo Celso eventually turned the ball home.
Spurs again got let off the hook as their away-day jitters crept back into their game, with the frame of their goal rattled twice in quick succession before the interval, but after the break, the senior players completed the job in style.
Son, deemed of fit state of mind to start after his role in the horrific injury to Andre Gomes in the weekend draw at Everton, scored a quick-fire double to put the game to bed, before Eriksen came off the bench to score a fourth after Red Star had given up the ghost.
But Son’s second would not have been possible without the driving run from Tanguy Ndombele, who breezed past two Red Star defenders as if they weren’t there, and Ryan Sessegnon superbly set up Eriksen for Spurs’ clincher.
Juan Foyth, on his first start of the season, also looked lively from full-back , but it was his compatriot, Lo Celso, who stole the show.
“I am understanding better and adapting better to the league and the truth is I am very happy,” Lo Celso said with delight, with help with translation from Foyth, after the match.
“There is a really good group here in general. I am enjoying this moment.”
He and Ndombele relished the freedom to express themselves in Belgrade, showing a vivacity that has been conspicuous by its absence in the Spurs ranks this season, with Eriksen as guilty as any for disappearing into mediocrity in many games this season.
Fans have questioned whether Eriksen’s heart is truly still in it, in the final year of his contract and seemingly set on a new challenge, and the lack of output – one goal and one assist prior to the trip to Belgrade – gives credence to such claims.
Yet, as Spurs edged closer to the Champions League knockout stages and went some way to lifting the gloom after what has been a miserable start to the season, Spurs could have unearthed a real diamond in Lo Celso and, should he go on to fulfil the potential he has shown for some time then an Eriksen departure, whenever that may be, might not be as hard hitting as first feared.
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