The Premier League has resumed after its unprecedented pause, the winter interlude when the game’s most glamorous domestic competition had to bow to the importance of a World Cup.
There is concern the broken-up calendar could mean disrupted momentum. Yet anybody looking for symptoms of changed habits hardly found them in the first top-flight match, Brentford’s hosting of Tottenham Hotspur, of post-Qatar 2022.
Spurs remain the same puzzling enigma, a team whose first-half lack of momentum seems deeply ingrained. Just as they had in each of their four games before the World Cup, they conceded first. Brentford had doubled their lead before Tottenham launched one of their trademark comebacks.
“I’m happy with the reaction, and these players have shown strength and character many times,” said Antonio Conte, the Spurs manager. “But I would like my team to be more stable.”
In the last half hour, Harry Kane and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg answered earlier goals from Vitaly Janelt and Ivan Toney. Kane also hit the crossbar on this, his return to action following England’s World Cup elimination by France when he missed a penalty that might have taken the quarter-final to extra-time.
After enduring the sort of tame Spurs start Kane is becoming used to, he showed few signs his self-belief is weakened by a high-profile moment of failure in his national jersey.
Tottenham had 11 players in Qatar, and those who last longest at the tournament, Argentina defender Cristian Romero and France captain Hugo Lloris, were absent from Conte’s line-up.
Lloris, a silver medallist at the Lusail stadium at the end of the gripping final eight days earlier, was on the bench, giving Fraser Forster a rare start in goal. An assessment of the readiness of Romero, who joined his celebrating compatriots in South America after their triumph, will be made ahead of Sunday’s fixture against Aston Villa.
Brentford v Tottenham player ratings
On the evidence of Tottenham’s first hour of a bright, mild afternoon in west London, Romero’s presence, as soon as possible, will be welcomed. Neither of the Brentford goals painted Spurs in a flattering light.
For the opener, they were stretched apart by the quick thinking of Toney and Bryan Mbeumo, whose cross was met on the volley by Mathias Jensen. The effort struck Clement Lenglet, Forster reacted to parry the deflection. Janelt, following up, steered the loose ball past the Spurs goalkeeper.
Brentford’s second, nine minutes after half-time, will prey on the thoughts of Eric Dier. His workload over the past six weeks as an occasional England substitute has been relatively light. Yet he looked momentarily distracted as he attempted to launch a clearance under no close pressure. Dier miscued, the ball spearing off his shin for a Brentford corner. Christian Norgaard met it at the near post, Toney pouncing to finish.
Brentford had kept Tottenham largely in check until then, alarmed only by Dejan Kulusevski’s lively work down the Tottenham right flank. Kane had a free-kick bounce off the defensive wall and behind. Son Heung-Min managed a lone threatening run. Ivan Perisic, whose excellence at set-pieces was helping Croatia win the bronze-medal match in Qatar 10 days ago, delivered a corner poorly - a very rare event for him.
But this is Spurs, who under Conte have developed a special knack of underwhelming then responding forcefully to setback. They had trailed 2-0 for just over 10 minutes when Kane halved the deficit by heading in Lenglet’s deep cross.
Kane would head against the frame of Brentford’s goal later in a lively conclusion to the contest. By then Spurs had equalised, Kulusevski the creator, with a skilful run that finished with a cutback to Hojbjerg.
His firm drive keeps Conte’s team in the top four at least until New Year’s Eve and once again tantalises Spurs supporters with the thought that, if they could only start matches as they end them, their ambitions might extend beyond just clinging to a top-four spot.