Tottenham’s FA Cup history owes a debt to Argentinian players, with José Mourinho saying that he can remember watching Ricky Villa’s famous winner in the replayed 1981 final against Manchester City on TV as a teenager in Portugal.
The stakes were rather lower in this third round replay against Championship opposition but Mourinho could be grateful to a pair of Argentinians for making the difference and helping to set up a trip to Southampton in the next round on Saturday week.
Giovani Lo Celso and Érik Lamela were the best players on the pitch, catching the eye with their skill and industry, and they scored the goals that embossed a fine first-half performance from their team and gave them enough to defend after the break.
Middlesbrough would bounce back up off the canvas in the closing stages and, after the substitute, George Saville, had sent a deflected shot just over the crossbar from distance in the 77th minute, he sparked a nervy finale with a low finish past Paulo Gazzaniga. They could depart with heads held high yet they could not complete an outlandish comeback.
Jonathan Woodgate was a Spurs player the last time the club won a trophy – he scored the decisive goal in the 2008 Carling Cup final against Chelsea – and the Middlesbrough manager took a moment to drink in the scene prior to kick-off. Some stadium, he seemed to be thinking. Quite the change from the old White Hart Lane.
Woodgate would be snapped unceremoniously back to reality before the end of the second minute when his goalkeeper, Tomás Mejías, served to present Spurs with the breakthrough. Mejías wanted to build from the back but he succeeded only in playing a low pass straight to Giovani Lo Celso, who jinked inside, ran past his teammate Lucas Moura and away from Dael Fry before side-footing into the bottom corner.
Spurs gulped down the early tonic and they were in control when Érik Lamela, making his first start for Mourinho, punished more slack defending from the visitors to make it 2-0. The winger, who tucked in off the left of Mourinho’s line of three behind Moura, picked Jonny Howson’s pocket and burst away from two other red shirts. Fry was powerless to make the last-man challenge and Lamela stabbed low past Mejías.
Mourinho has done a lot of lamenting of late, making it clear to everybody that his back is to the wall and his plaintive tone had framed the build-up. “We don’t have the players to make more rotations than what we’ve done but we have to try with what we have,” he said. Mourinho swapped five players from Saturday’s home loss to Liverpool. Woodgate made the same number of changes from his team’s 2-2 draw at Derby on the same day.
Spurs wobbled a bit at the back in the early stages, with Davinson Sánchez looking uncomfortable on more than one occasion, misreading a couple of high balls and making further poor choices. Lukas Nmecha, Middlesbrough’s on-loan Manchester City forward, turned inside Japhet Tanganga to open up a clear shooting chance for himself. Paulo Gazzaniga was off his line quickly to block.
But Tottenham’s greater technical quality was all too apparent. Lo Celso and Lamela, who had entered to good effect as substitutes against Liverpool, enjoyed themselves, with the former laying on his team’s clearest chance for a third goal before the interval. He played in Tanganga on the overlap – the right-back could scarcely believe the space he had – only to drag narrowly wide of the far post.
The home crowd got onto Mejías – his clearances were erratic, to put it mildly – and Spurs had the chances to be out of sight at half-time. Lamela shot high, Ryan Sessegnon extended Mejías and Moura blasted just wide after a surging run.
Middlesbrough are to stay in London for their Championship game at Fulham on Friday night and they will train at Crystal Palace, after Spurs were one of a number of clubs to refuse them the use of their facilities.
Mourinho wanted to see a ruthless mindset from his players and there were plus points for him in the urgency of Lo Celso and Lamela, together with the busy energy of Harry Winks, who set the tempo in midfield.
Tanganga impressed and the youngster almost teed up Sessegnon with a driven low cross. From point-blank range, Sessegnon lifted high although it would have come as a relief to him to learn that he was offside. Mourinho gave the sort of eye-roll that he otherwise reserved for Sánchez’s slices and swipes.
Woodgate had promised that his young team would play without fear and, with the second half more even, the 3,500 travelling supporters wondered what might happen if they could score the next goal.
Lewis Wing worked Gazzaniga with a low free-kick and Saville advertised the shock when he made space for the shot in front of Tanganga and threaded past Gazzaniga.