Tottenham vs CSKA. Dead rubber game?
The hype surrounding a Champions League match was nowhere to be seen on Wednesday evening as Tottenham Hotspur hosted CSKA Moscow. There was no prize of the Last 16 at stake and in fact, the only prize up for grabs was a spot in the Europa League knockout rounds — something that neither side are particularly keen on.
You could tell from the entire evening that this was a bit of a dead rubber game. Even outside Wembley beforehand, there was no real party atmosphere as Tottenham clad people wandered around the nearby shopping centre as if it were any other night whilst inside the the stadium itself it was nowhere near full and, although the official attendance figure was over 60,000, it looked like there were far more than 20,000 vacated red seats inside Wembley.
As the teams walked out at 19:40, there was a mild ripple of applause from the Tottenham faithful to greet their team whilst the classic Champions League anthem, famed for rousing the spirits, was as inappropriate as it will ever be given the circumstances.
According to players, it is up to fans to create the atmosphere but, on the other side of the fence, fans believe players should give them something to shout about. Neither was happening here.
The first ten minutes were pretty much a non-event and perhaps the most mobile person in the stadium was CSKA manager Leonid Slutsky who was rocking back and forth violently on the bench.
In fact, the biggest applause from the Tottenham crowd was aimed at Toby Alderweireld as he warmed up on the touchline — back in the squad for the first time since October after injury.
Having said that, after a fairly dull opening period, you could see that CSKA sensed an opportunity, pressing Tottenham higher up the pitch and increasing the tempo of the match. The Army Men were eventually rewarded through Alan Dzagoev's goal just after the half hour mark. Wembley was stunned into silence. This surprise opener shocked Spurs fans into life as they roared vigorously during the next Tottenham attack. The home supporters suddenly remembered that, even though they are not that bothered about the Europa League, they do not like losing.
Alli's equaliser just five minutes after Dzagoev's goal led the majority of the stadium to let out a collective sigh of relief as they realised they were probably going to avoid defeat at Wembley.
At that moment, you could see CSKA died a death and their high, which lasted for about five minutes, was very quickly over.
Harry Kane's goal made it 2-1 just before the break which meant that Spurs fans could tuck into their half time pies and tea in relative comfort as their team already looked out of sight.
That second Tottenham goal undoubtedly calmed down the locals as they seemed pretty content and composed for the rest of the match — although it did not stop one particular Spurs fan from getting incredibly irate every time a pass was misplaced. At least somebody cared.
The 67th minute saw the biggest cheer of the night as the previously-mentioned Toby Alderweireld came onto the pitch. The whole stadium, well, the small amount in attendance, rose to their feet to welcome the Belgian into the action. That reaction was more celebratory than any of the goals scored that night.
Dele Alli put the final nail in the CSKA coffin as his header, brilliantly saved initially by CSKA keeper Igor Akinfeev, crept in off Akinfeev's boot for an unfortunate own goal.
At full time there was a small ripple of applause around Wembley from the very few fans left inside the stadium as Spurs booked their place in next year's Europa League knockout rounds.
The behaviour of fans throughout the night was that of complacency. They expect their team to be performing in the Champions League on a regular basis rather than fighting it out with CSKA for a Europa League spot. It almost seemed like they were not bothered either way and perhaps some would even relish being knocked out of Europe.
However, Spurs supporters should be a little bit more optimistic. Tottenham are a top side and they no doubt have the quality to at least reach the final of Europe's secondary competition.
This a club who have won just one major trophy in the last 25 years so Tottenham fans should certainly look at the Europa League as an opportunity rather than a hindrance — just like their European counterparts do.
A good experience in the Europa League may perhaps damage their domestic ambitions this year but it will certainly help them in the long term as they look to acclimatise to highly-pressurised European knockout matches.
If they treat the Europa League matches next year (when they will face far tougher challenges than CSKA) in the same way they treated this match, there can be no doubt that Spurs will have let a huge opportunity of silverware slip.Wembley