Antwerp tame Tottenham in Europa League thanks to Lior Refaelov’s goal | Football

In the midst of another suffocating week with three games on the agenda, Tottenham hoped the trip to Antwerp would demonstrate the effectiveness of their squad depth they are counting on to define their season. Instead, they finished with the worst possible outcome. Key players were brought off the bench to rescue the game yet they were still outplayed by Antwerp, who moved top of Group J with their win.

Before the match, José Mourinho spoke expansively about the number of options at his disposal in most positions, talent so plentiful that he says it “hurts” to leave out quality players. He made nine changes from Monday’s win at Burnley.

Spending hours on the bench is not always conducive to flowing, confident football, however. Steven Bergwijn, Dele Alli and Gareth Bale lining up behind Carlos Vinícius seemed a strong second-string attack on paper but it was their lack of minutes and time together that showed.

The disjointedness early on was personified by Alli, who pressed well and found space but continually struggled to pick the correct pass. Mourinho had predicted Bale would fly, but the only things that flew were his numerous long range pot-shots high up into the empty stands. He remained on the periphery for much of his shift.

Antwerp had no such problems. They arrived with five consecutive wins in all competitions, sitting top of the Jupiler League after 10 games. They made Tottenham pay for their incoherence, generating many of the early chances.

Approaching the half-hour mark, Ben Davies dwelled too long on the ball in defence and he was caught in possession by Dieumerci Mbokani. He advanced towards a stranded Davinson Sánchez, the last defender, before feeding Lior Refaelov who thundered an excellent finish into the net.

The response after such a poor half was immediate. Mourinho opened the second with four substitutions, hauling off Giovani Lo Celso, Alli, Bergwijn and Vinícius in favour of Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Érik Lamela, Lucas Moura and Son Heung-min. If Alli’s occasional omission from the squad has been painful for him, he surely left the Bosuilstadion feeling even worse.

“I didn’t make five [substitutions] because I was afraid of a long 45 minutes without any change to make,” said Mourinho. “There is only one to blame, which is me.

“I made the team, I’ve chosen the players that start and at half-time I tried to improve the situation but it was not enough. The dynamic of the first half was there, the mentality of the first half was there and it’s difficult to change.”

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The Belgian side had two opportunities to double their lead before the hour mark, Refaelov failing to take advantage of a misplaced pass by Harry Winks in the opening minutes of the half before the skilful Koji Miyoshi fed Mbokani with a beautiful cross. From three yards out, his finish flew well over the bar.

Finally, Mourinho replaced Bale with Harry Kane, a substitution that could hardly be more symbolic. The balance of the game slowly began to shift, with Tottenham moving on the attack and testing the resolute Antwerp defence in the final half hour. Led by the former Leicester defender Ritchie De Laet, the home side held out to reduce the London club to a bitter defeat.

After arriving in Antwerp praising all members of his squad, Mourinho departed with greater clarity. “You know what our best team [is],” he said. “You know the same thing that I know, that everybody knows. But I always like to think the players deserve an opportunity. We have a big squad with lots of good players.

“It’s my responsibility to give them opportunities to play and catch the chance with both hands and be in conditions to ask for more. And my future choices are going to be very easy.”


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