September 27, 2021

Harry Kane gets hero’s reception, scores twice as Tottenham reach Europa Conference League group stages

LONDON — The grass probably is a fair bit greener at the Etihad Stadium but on a night like tonight perhaps Harry Kane’s regrets over what might have been this summer would have been soothed somewhat.

He did not go into this summer dreaming of Europa Conference League ties against Pacos de Ferreira in front of a not-quite-full Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. The contrast could scarcely have been more stark with what might have been if he had got his dream move to Manchester City, big nights under the light against Lionel Messi, Neymar et al. But it can’t be that bad to be this loved, can it?

The first game after Kane acknowledged what had been apparent for some time — that he would not be getting the move he wanted — might have been an awkward occasion for Tottenham’s second highest scorer in their history. In the social media post announcing he was staying he had made a point of noting the warm reception that he had received from traveling Spurs supporters as a substitute in the win over Wolverhampton Wanderers last weekend but you could forgive some for a sense of lingering resentment that their talisman was not up for the fight anymore.

Not for a second was there a sense of any such animosity on the home fans’ part. His loyalty may have wavered but theirs has not. The bellow that greeted his name might have been the loudest noise this ground has heard in 18 months other than when Heung-min Son scored on the opening day. Even that might have been eclipsed by the chant of “Harry Kane he’s one of our own” when he nearly scored in the first minute, a gorgeous pass over the top by Cristian Romero that he could not quite guide under the crossbar.

As they burst out in chants demanding waves first from Nuno Espirito Santo and then substitutes Dele Alli and Heung-min Son (all of whom obliged) even while the tie remained on a knife edge, there was a jubilance to the crowd that reflected their relief at yesterday’s news, intermingled with an unmitigated delight at being back in their home ground en masse. Neither will fade for some time yet.

Though his gentle reintroduction to club football was hardly Spurs-sanctioned it at least meant that tonight Kane had a burst of energy that others on both sides did not. You would hardly confuse him for the player of his youth but when the ball came to the impressive Bryan Gil or Giovanni Lo Celso he burst into life, making runs off the last shoulder of Antunes or dropping deep to pick up a pass and create an angle for Lucas Moura and Ryan Sessegnon.

Pacos were more than accommodating to Kane. Antunes did not think to check where Spurs’ No. 10 was when Harry Winks won the ball back just inside the attacking third. Only when Gil cut the ball back from the byline did it seem to dawn on him that Kane must surely be in the space he had left near the penalty spot, from which he tucked home his first goal of the season. At times a slow starter in new campaigns, Kane’s 2020-21 drought was short-lived.

Kane’s second goal owed as much to Lo Celso’s determination to chase any ball as to his own customary excellence at predicting where a ricocheting ball might land in the penalty area. The Argentine managed to put just enough pressure on the bouncing ball after Kane’s shot from outside the box to force it into the path of the England captain, who slotted the ball into the bottom right corner.

As his manager would point out, this was not a riposte from Kane. He has nothing to prove to anyone anymore when he dons a Tottenham shirt. This was an opportunity to move on, even if it is only just until the transfer talk is revived next summer: “My answer to that is I see Harry every day since he has joined us. He doesn’t have to prove [anything] to anyone. He’s committed you can see. All the situations that happened are in the past. Let’s move forward.”

Following last week’s shock 1-0 defeat in Portugal, a two-goal margin was not enough for Spurs to rest easily. However the removal of the away goals rule in UEFA competitions did bring with it notable benefits to this tie. In years gone by Tottenham would have been compelled to defend deep, their priority not conceding the goal that would have swung the tie dramatically in Pacos’ favor. Instead it was in the home team’s interests to push on, their best chance of killing off the tie coming through scoring a third rather than playing for a clean sheet.

Of course Pacos had to attack as well and although they never particularly tested Pierluigi Gollini in the Tottenham goal it made for a dramatically more enjoyable contest, the Portuguese side leaving plenty of space for Gil to dart into. What might have been a dreary slog to the finish line proved to be an engaging tie that felt like it might pivot at any moment, at least until Spurs got their third in the 70th minute.

It might have brought the contest to a premature end but Lo Celso’s free kick was worth it, a whipped effort from wide on the right flank that clipped off the Pacos wall as it flew beyond Andre Ferreira.

Meanwhile Kane never got his hat trick — you could tell he desperately wanted it — but perhaps missing out on the last 19 minutes was worth it for the unbridled adulation that emanated from every one of the 30,215 at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium when his number flashed up on the substitutes’ board alongside Son’s. It may not be what he wanted but as consolation prizes go Kane can scarcely complain.

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