1. Improved squad shows what a difference a year makes
It's 12 months since Tottenham were knocked out of the Europa League in the last 32 by Fiorentina, 3-1 on aggregate. A year on, the contrast could not have been more stark. A comfortable victory at White Hart Lane last night saw Spurs progress 4-1 on aggregate this time. The five-goal swing was one of the best indicators yet of just how Mauricio Pochettino's men have improved over the past year.
Tottenham drew 1-1 at home in the first leg a year ago, before losing 2-0 in Italy. Pochettino made changes for that tie, and the team that took to the field didn't have the quality to progress against respected opposition. Spurs' squad was simply not strong enough to compete at the top level, as also reflected by their fifth-placed finish in the league – six points short of the Champions League spots.
Roberto Soldado missed a golden chance in that second leg in Florence, before an error from Federico Fazio allowed Mario Gomez to net the goal that put la Viola on course for the last 16. Vlad Chiriches and Benjamin Stambouli also played that night. All four have since departed, albeit Fazio only on loan.
Spurs didn't make as many changes this time, but they were still short of full strength. It didn't matter, though, because they now have a squad where the gap in quality between their first-choice XI – if such a thing exists – and the back-ups is minimal. It's that depth which must make them real contenders to win the Europa League. Dortmund are the bookmakers' favourites, so the last 16 clash will undoubtedly provide a serious test of their credentials. But it's a tie that Spurs are still very capable of emerging triumphant from. Get through that, and it's hard to find a more compelling candidate to win the competition.
The way Spurs dominated their last 32 tie against a side currently third in Serie A was truly impressive. After a 1-1 draw at the Stadio Artemio Franchi, rarely in the second leg did there look to be the remotest possibility of them being eliminated. It wasn't a performance that relied on one or two stars, but a true team display. An exercise in control.
"I believe that Spurs are in the top five in Europe at the moment in terms of their ability, their intensity and the quality of their play," said Fiorentina boss Paulo Sousa. "After the second goal we found it extremely difficult. They were putting us under pressure. We weren't able to slow the game down against a team who maintain a high intensity. We weren't able to match their intensity the longer the game went on."
Dele Alli, Kieran Trippier, Kevin Wimmer and Son Heung-min all arrived in the summer to significantly strengthen the squad, and three started this game. The fact that Son was needed only as an unused substitute – despite being a more potent attacking threat than the often hapless Soldado ever was – says much about how much Spurs' squad has progressed in 12 months.
Alli will miss the first leg of the last 16 through suspension after picking up a yellow card last night, but it need not be a worry. Pochettino isn't relying on just 11 players staying fit enough to drag Spurs through the rest of the season, both in the title race and in Europe. He can rotate to a certain extent on Thursday nights and know that the players he selects should still have the quality to progress.
"We have two competitions, the Europa League and the Premier League - why do we have to prioritise one of them?" Pochettino asked. "It's true that maybe for our supporters the Premier League is more important, but for me we have try to do well in both. I think we have enough quality and a big squad to play in both."
2. Spurs have flexibility to cope without Kane
Not only do Spurs now have a deeper squad, but they also have a more flexible squad. If one player is missing, others are more comfortable switching positions to cover.
Eric Dier, Mousa Dembele, Ryan Mason, Alli and Christian Eriksen are all not restricted to one position, and the way Pochettino replaced Harry Kane last night was telling too.
Kane didn't start the second leg against Fiorentina last year, rested to the bench, and he wasn't involved at all this year because of injury.
Last season that meant selecting Roberto Soldado, closing your eyes and praying he didn't do anything stupid. He did. This season Pochettino felt confident enough to employ Nacer Chadli up front. It's not the Belgian's best position but the fact that Spurs didn't miss Kane was testament to his performance.
Chadli will not provide the physical presence that Kane has, or hold the ball up in quite the same way, but there was certainly no shortage of effort and he became more of a threat as the game opened up in the second half. With Alli, Eriksen and Erik Lamela in behind, Spurs still had a thoroughly competent attacking quartet – even without Kane. Three goals backed up the faith that Pochettino had placed in them.
"It's true that Harry Kane is very important for us but today it was impossible for him to be available, and we can be very proud of the players," the boss said. "The performance was fantastic."
3. Lamela is flourishing – thanks to the Europa League
Lamela started last season's second leg against Fiorentina, and he also started last night. But the Lamela of a year ago and today's Lamela are two very different players. The same is true of Dembele, and they are two further reasons why Spurs' squad is stronger than it was 12 months ago. Both have improved immeasurably and in Lamela's case that may well be down to the Europa League. The competition played a key role in Kane's progress last season, when the striker's seven goals in his first six European matches last season persuaded Pochettino to give him his chance as a regular Premier League starter. Kane never looked back.
This season it has been Lamela who has benefited most. Largely poor in his first two campaigns with the club, Spurs fans still needed convincing that the Argentine was anything more than a showpony.
That was until their opening Europa League of the current campaign, at home to Azerbaijani side Qarabag, when Lamela was notably impressive and got his reward with a second-half goal. It helped to kick-start what has turned out to be a highly encouraging season for him, both at home and abroad.
In Europe, Lamela followed that Qarabag strike with a goal at Monaco and then a hat-trick at home to the Ligue 1 side. His goal against Fiorentina last night was his sixth of this season's Europa League competition. Only Athletic Bilbao's Aritz Aduriz, with seven, has scored more.
Lamela has now become a respected member of a title-challenging squad, and is finally starting to show why Spurs paid £25.7m to sign him from Roma in 2013. The standing ovation he received when he was substituted last night illustrated just how perceptions have changed around White Hart Lane.
4. Mason boosts England chances
It's almost a year since Ryan Mason made his one and only senior appearance for England. The midfielder has had an injury-hit season and was only an unused sub against France in November, after gaining a late call-up to the squad for the injured Fabian Delph.
Mason still stands a good chance of getting the nod for Roy Hodgson's Euro 2016 squad, but he certainly needs a strong end to the season to make sure. This performance, including the crucial first goal of the game, will have done him no harm as he continues his return from 10 weeks out with an ankle problem.
The 24-year-old was a steady presence in the Spurs midfield and strong displays like this in Europe will help to persuade Hodgson that he has a role to play against continental opposition at the Euros too.
5. Premier League fends off threat from Serie A
When Manchester City lost at home to Juventus in the opening week of Champions League group fixtures in September – a week when Manchester United and Arsenal were also defeated – it was starting to look like there was a real risk of the Premier League losing its fourth qualifying spot for the competition to Serie A in the near future. Italy made real ground on England in the UEFA club rankings last season, largely thanks to progress in the Europa League. But Spurs' win over Fiorentina was indicative of how things have changed since September – with England actually starting to increase its lead over Italy in the club rankings once more.
Manchester City look likely to outlast Juventus in the Champions League, while Liverpool and Manchester United have joined Tottenham in the last 16 of the Europa League. In contrast, Napoli's surprise exit to Villarreal in the last 32 leaves Lazio as the only remaining Italian side in the competition.
England's fourth Champions League spot is now almost certainly safe for another year.
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