For just about the first time in a season that already seems far longer than its two-and-a-half weeks, Tottenham Hotspur showed an admirable consistency late into Tuesday night. Their performances may vary wildly from one half-hour to the next, but their penalty-taking works like clockwork.
For their first spot-kick in the shoot-out of their League Cup meeting with Chelsea, Eric Dier arrowed his effort in, hard and low, to the right of the goalkeeper. For the next, Erik Lamela produced a replica, albeit with his left foot. Lamela’s penalty followed the trajectory of Dier’s almost exactly.
So far, so formulaic. Most penalty shoot-outs have an element of bluff and double-bluff, and in Tuesday's, with a quarter-final place at stake, there were added unknowns. In goal for Chelsea was Edouard Mendy, a keeper making his very first appearance, since last week's transfer from Rennes, in English football.
That meant Tottenham, whose schedule has been frantically busy, and remains so with Thursday’s Europa League play-off against Maccabi Haifa, had limited briefing material on Mendy’s habits. But by the time Harry Kane stepped to take their fifth, at 4-4, they had learnt something, which is that Mendy tends to take an initial step to his left.
Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg detected it. Hojbjerg varied the Dier and Lamela formula only by the lightest of degrees, netting Spurs’ third penalty low into the bottom left-hand corner. For number four, Lucas Moura sharpened the angle by another small tilt, into the bottom-left corner via the side of the net.
Dier, Lamela, Hojbjerg, Moura: An utterly consistent quartet of spot-kicks, all low to the keeper’s right, Mendy moving the wrong way for each.
When the goalkeeper finally decided to go to his right, Kane did the opposite, scoring to Mendy’s left, the winning strike, as it turned out, with 5-4 on spot-kicks enough to beat Chelsea.
So much for the metronome reliability of their penalties. In most other respects, Spurs have been unfathomably inconsistent since mid-August. In the Premier League, they were drab in losing to Everton, spectacular in walloping Southampton, and then cursed in drawing with Newcastle United, their lead in that match erased when Dier was penalised under the severe new handball guidelines and a Newcastle penalty given against him. A schizophrenic Spurs also took to the field against Chelsea, outplayed for much of the first half, then dynamic and proactive in the second, when a late Lamela equaliser earned them the right to settle the contest with cool consistency from the penalty spot.
Tottenham v Chelsea player ratings
What version of Tottenham appears on Thursday, in the third of four matches in eight days and already the third European tie of their breathless campaign, will depend on how fatigue drags on certain individuals, and on the effectiveness of manager Jose Mourinho’s necessary rotation of a squad he still thinks is too thin in some areas.
Speaking on Wednesday, Mourinho described his fears of asking too much of his players in the strongest terms. Too much game time, in the packed fixture list, would be a “crime”, he said. He accused himself of “one crime” in demanding that Dier, who has played 90 minutes in five of Spurs’ six games so far, prepare for a possible third game in five days.
He fears for Kane’s endurance, although the striker was used only in the last 20 minute against Chelsea. “When Kane is fit he should start every game for Tottenham, but you just can’t do it.”
Mourinho noted the exhaustion in Tanguy Ndombele, smiling at the fact the midfielder had not run to join his celebrating teammates when Chelsea’s Mason Mount missed the last penalty. “That was because he was very, very tired,” said Mourinho, praising the France international, a player Mourinho was openly critical of last season. “There is no point in comparing this Tanguy with last season's Tanguy. He is playing amazingly, I am very, very happy. Physically he can be better and he will be. He can be really phenomenal.”
Mourinho congratulated Sergio Reguilon, the left-back signed this month from Real Madrid, for his Spurs debut. Reguilon had made an error that led to Chelsea's first-half goal; he later provided the cross for Lamela's equaliser. "He showed his character," thought Mourinho. "Some more experienced players, when something goes wrong, let their confidence go. This kid went the opposite way. He made a mistake for Chelsea's goal and, from that moment, he went up and up."
Spurs, with a very different starting XI, intend to keep their upward momentum rolling. If they overcome Maccabi Haifa they will reach the lucrative group phase of the Europa League. “These knockout matches of only one leg are very dangerous,” warned Mourinho, “and this is a competition that can give us an important amount financially, and one that we are motivated to have a go in, to try and go on and win.”