Tottenham moved a step closer to ending their 12-year trophy drought with a victory over Stoke that takes them into the Carabao Cup semi-finals. This was the competition they won in 2008 and as José Mourinho has four winner’s medals no side will relish meeting his side in the last four.
By the close Spurs were good value for the victory, dominating apart from a wobble after the break in which Jordan Thompson levelled Gareth Bale’s opener. But they steadied themselves and ended in cruise control thanks to fine strikes from Ben Davies and Harry Kane.
Of the prospect of claiming the cup, Mourinho said: “To win this trophy we have to win two more matches but these will be very difficult matches, very difficult opponents.”
Mourinho’s headline selection was Dele Alli – ending a month out of the first XI – with Bale also included for a proverbial wet night in the Potteries. Bale’s opening contribution came from the right as he hit a free-kick at Lucas Moura, the Brazilian unable to capitalise. It was a passage of play that indicated the pattern of the contest: Mourinho’s side would not be the arch counterattacking proposition they usually are but would hog possession and have to break Stoke down via front-foot play.
When Kane glided along the right and hit in a cross that was punched away by the 37-year-old goalkeeper Andy Lonergan it was a sign of Spurs’ potent creativity.
For Stoke, taking hold of the ball and moving their visitors around was a problem they could not solve. Neither was Lonergan able to offer an answer to Bale’s flicked header when Harry Winks chipped the ball over from the right, the ball skidding past the veteran to give Tottenham the lead.
Michael O’Neill’s discontent deepened when Stoke’s manager witnessed a free-kick routine that was supposed to trick Spurs but was instead messed up by a heavy Jordan Cousins pass that sprayed the ball straight out. This had been Stoke’s sole foray anywhere near Hugo Lloris’s goal.
Spurs’ inventiveness soon had Alli drawing a foul from Cousins with a slick turn. At this juncture Alli was a bright light, his next contribution a shot that forced Lonergan to save, and as the break neared he shot from distance after a Moura knockdown, the keeper diving low to repel it from the right corner.
The half ended with Spurs having bullied their hosts throughout, Mourinho’s side illustrating the conditions and opposition were no drama for them.
For the second period Bale was removed for Son Heung-min due to a niggle: hardly a sight to cheer Stoke as the South Korean forward would link up with usual partner, Kane. The latter’s ability was displayed when he dropped off and floated over a pass that Alli narrowly failed to connect with.
But Tottenham were sucker-punched by a lethal break that derived from Alli losing the ball. Steven Fletcher had entered on 34 minutes for the injured Morgan Fox and his pounce and pass to Jacob Brown along the right was a dab of class. Suddenly Spurs were turned and when Brown crossed into the box, Matt Doherty flailed and Thompson’s close-range finish beat Lloris with aplomb.
Mourinho was visibly upset at Alli and content to criticise him afterwards. “For me a player that plays in that position has to link and create and not to create problems for his own team,” he said. “In that situation, a counterattack would probably end with a goal or an action and it ended with a counterattack behind our defenders [and a goal] and they transformed a game that was totally in our hands. So yes I was upset.”
Stoke had injected aggression and intent into their approach. James McClean thundered down his flank from left wing-back and Fletcher was denied an effort at Lloris only by Davinson Sánchez’s clearance.
Mourinho responded with a double change: Moussa Sissoko and Érik Lamela replacing Moura and the beleaguered Alli in an attempt to wake Spurs from their ponderous mode. It worked. Harry Souttar hacked the ball into Davies’s path and from 25 yards he finished supremely.
It was soon 3-1. Thompson miscontrolled, Sissoko found Kane and the Spurs captain smashed home.
O’Neill said: “We take credit for our second half after being a bit timid before in the first half.”