Tottenham out-punch rugged Stoke City to maintain their Champions League course
On Saturday, Mauricio Pochettino became the first non-European to manage 200 Premier League games. In hindsight, maybe that would have been a milestone better reached at Stamford Bridge, where his Tottenham team gave such a vivid illustration of his work.
As it was, he had to settle for Stoke and the Bet365 Stadium, a less hostile place these days and housing far less of a threat, but still theoretically one of the rockier parts of this country's football terrain.
It was treacherous, too. Stoke's gameplan emerged quickly: Dele Alli was skittled to the floor three times inside the first 15 minutes. Relegation is a very real threat in these parts, Paul Lambert's players began the day in 19th place, and the aim was evidently to jolt Tottenham from their rhythm. Harry Kane was also barged over early and Danny Rose, a pantomime villain for reasons nobody could quite remember, was studded flush in the chest by Ramadan Sobhi.
As the bravado fell away, the teams fell into familiar roles: the visitors enjoyed most of the ball and posing the greater threat, with the hosts content to sporadically counter-attack. Mame Diouf missed an excellent chance from under Hugo Lloris's crossbar, albeit one which came to him quickly, while Son Heung-min squandered Spurs' clearest opening, shooting straight at Jack Butland when clear through on goal.
Stoke's league position is deceptive. They may deserve to be where they find themselves, but that 19th place disguises that, goal-threat aside, they have noticeably improved. As they showed at Arsenal last weekend, with a reliable forward at the top of the pitch their hassle, energy and organisation would all probably count for more. As much as anything else, Lambert's biggest enemy is an absence of finesse.
Seven second-half minutes characterised the key difference between the sides. At one end, just after the restart, Diouf found space on the edge of the box. Instead of waiting for support, he lashed tamely at Lloris's goal. A few minutes later, Dembele intercepted in midfield and immediately sprung Alli down the right side. Rather than crossing first time for Kane, who was trailed by three anxious defenders, he hesitated, found Eriksen inside with a more subtle pass, and the Dane cut the ball first time beyond Butland. It was ruthlessly efficient and it depended on a split-second of clarity which Stoke's players proved - many times - that they just don't have.
They did hit back, though. Lloris has had a difficult week and it got worse: his clearance was charged down by Diouf and the Senegalese tapped home into the empty net to equalise. Not a good moment for the Frenchman. Especially not given his recent form. As long as he continues to concede soft goals, questions about his future will not go away.
Ironically, though, it was a setback which allowed this game to become a near perfect emblem of Pochettino's reign. The football was stodgy and certainly never approached the high points achieved in other games, but it showed a now-familiar response to adversity. Six minutes after Diouf had scored and the Bet365 had been raised to its crowing best, the native bluster was hushed again. Eriksen's whipped free-kick from the far touchline evaded everyone, with the possible exception of Kane, and found its way past Butland. It wasn't a goal of any great craft, but it still felt typical of this team's resolve.
For long periods, Tottenham looked physically spent, perhaps even emotionally empty after the Chelsea game, but they did enough to get home. Stoke did not go quietly. Xherdan Shaqiri rattled Lloris's crossbar with a free-kick and Diouf, again, somehow managed to butcher a four-on-one break. Once Peter Crouch was introduced, they also began shelling the visiting box at every opportunity. Lloris looked fragile, Davinson Sanchez also had some pulse-raising moments, but this was a bend-without-breaking scenario. A day, ultimately, that depended on brave headers and timely recovery tackles more than it did any flair.
Also, obviously, the kind of day which was so often unkind to pre-Pochettino Tottenham.
Not today. Stoke deserved more than they got from this game and Lambert will be left cursing his dearth of attacking options once again, but that will be of no concern to a Spurs team still marching steadily towards a third straight Champions League qualification.