Thank goodness for South Korea’s underwhelming quarter-final exit of the Asian Cup in Abu Dhabi last week. That one little detail, a 1-0 defeat to Qatar, might just have saved Tottenham Hotspur’s Premier League season. Because Heung Min Son came back early and he has now helped to win them two games that he was never even expected to play.
First it was Watford on Wednesday night, Son’s first game back, three days after landing, when he blasted in the late equaliser that set up Fernando Llorente’s winner. He was never expected to play all of that game, but Mauricio Pochettino decided to keep him on throughout, a gamble that paid off with three points.
On Wednesday night Pochettino was not even sure that Son would start again here against Newcastle, with just two days in between to recover. But he did, only going off after 88 minutes, after he had won Spurs the game.
Because with eight minutes left it felt again as if this would be another frustrating night, two more points dropped, more momentum dissipated. But after Son hammered in the winner here, a goal out of nowhere, a goal that only he would have scored. Yes it was lucky that Martin Dubravka let the ball through his hands, no-one could deny that. But Son surprised him with his audacity and power, and no other Spurs player had looked like doing that all afternoon.
Suddenly all the fears from last week have faded away, and Spurs have climbed up to second place, ahead of Manchester City. Now they have a rare empty midweek before they host Leicester here. Suddenly, and thanks almost entirely to Son, this treacherous February is starting to look more manageable. And Borussia Dortmund will not be looking forward to facing him either.
Just like against Watford, the frustrations of the performance only accentuated the satisfaction of the victory. Because anyone who came here expecting to see classic Spurs should have stayed at home. It was never going to be that. Not without Harry Kane and Dele Alli, and with their fit players looking increasingly run into the ground. Spurs have looked nothing like themselves recently: knocked out of both cups by Chelsea and Crystal Palace four days apart. Back here on Wednesday night they scraped a win past Watford thanks to Fernando Llorente’s late header. But up until that point it had been pretty grim stuff, Spurs looking nothing like their usual expressive selves.
Not that today was ever going to be very different. Pochettino did not start Llorente here, which made sense to anyone who saw his clumsy display before his winning header in midweek. His frontline of Lucas Moura and Son should have given Spurs more early mobility, enough to get through this regimented Newcastle side. But Rafa Benitez came here playing a 5-4-1 with two holding midfielders, presenting Spurs with a maze of opponents they had to pick through with every attack. This was never going to be easy for them.
And Newcastle played well, Salomon Rondon always a threat up front. He hit the post from DeAndre Yedlin’s cross early in the second half, and had they taken one of their half-chances it would have been a very different game. Just as Pochettino is overachieving given his resources, so is Benitez.
The irony for Spurs, as they tried to pick their way through, was that even though Llorente did not come on until the hour mark, they played as if he was up front throughout. As if the players were earnestly solving last week’s puzzle without realising the question had changed. They kept getting down the flanks and firing crosses into the box, but nothing ever came of it. First Lucas headed wide from Lamela’s cross. Then Lamela headed against the bar from Jan Vertonghen’s cross. When Sanchez headed wide from a corner early in the second half, it felt - and this has hardly ever been the case before - that Spurs could have done with Llorente on up front from the start.
Sure enough, Llorente soon came on for Lucas, welcomed onto the pitch by a reception that was both ironic and enthusiastic. Not good enough to be a proper Plan B, but not bad enough to be a cult hero either.
And from there it was a familiar pattern. First, frustration as he slowly clanked into gear, heading a clever Eriksen cross far over the bar, blaming the low shine of the sun for it. Then, the sense that he might actually be useful, winning a first ball from a corner, setting up Eriksen whose shot was cleared off the line.
Then, with eight minutes left, the moment he had been brought on for. Alderweireld hit a diagonal from deep. Llorente held off Fabian Schar on the edge of the box, laying the ball back to Son. From there Son showed that ruthlessness he is so famous for. It only takes the slightest glimmer of a chance. He shuffled inside, throwing Longstaff and Lejeune off the scent. He whipped the ball towards goal, and Dubravka was desperately unready for it, spilling the ball through his hands and into the net.
Spurs got the win that never felt likely, and that not all of them deserved, except for that one man who flew home dejected one week ago but has not stopped running since.
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