Tottenham moved to within touching distance of a place in the last 32 of the Europa League with a 2-0 win over Sheriff Tiraspol in Moldova. The goals came after 12 minutes and 75 minutes form Jan Vertonghen and Jermain Defoe, respectively, but in between the Moldovan champions gave Tottenham plenty of problems and it was only continued poor finishing that prevented a far different score line.
Sheriff repeatedly got behind Tottenham’s high defensive line as they threatened an equalizer. But with the final touch not going to plan, the visitors were able to secure victory when Defoe’s deflected strike found the net and put him level with Martin Chivers as Tottenham’s record scorer in European competitions with 22 goals.
Andre Villas-Boas made seven changes to the side that defeated Aston Villa at the weekend and, despite the defensive frailties, will reflect fondly on a third-straight win. The only thing missing was a draw in the other game in their group that would have secured Tottenham’s qualification for the knockout phase. A 1-0 win for Anzhi Makhachkala over Tromso means that they will have to wait until Sheriff visit White Hart Lane in two weeks.
Hoping for an easy night ahead of a meeting with Hull on Sunday, Villas-Boas’s men got off to the perfect start. The opening goal, just 12 minutes in, was as straightforward as the come. From a short corner, Christian Eriksson hung a ball up to the far post and Vertonghen rose above his marker six yards out to send a header into the net.
With the early goal to their name, Tottenham might have been expected to go on and take command of the game, but instead they were constantly living on the edge. There was plenty possession for the visitors, but Sheriff were able to get plenty of joy on the break. On several occasions, Tottenham’s defense was caught out as Sheriff were able to get in behind.
In the most threatening incident, Vlad Chiriches had to be alert to get back on the line and deny a shot from Henrique Luvannor after the lively left-footer had rounded Hugo Lloris. There were then two close escapes in a matter of minutes, with first the inventive Cadu having a goal ruled out for offside before Ismail Isa shot poorly past the far post having got on the end of Chiriches’ attempted interception. Luvannor should also have done better than firing over on the turn from 10 yards.
Tottenham’s troubled back line was forced into an alteration after 34 minutes too when Ezequiel Fryers was forced off, meaning Michael Dawson came on and Jan Vertonghen switched to left back.
Going forward, Tottenham struggled to find the tempo and movement to break down a well-drilled Sheriff side. For record signing Erik Lamela, it was another disappointing outing as the former Roma forward again looked off the pace, despite showing hints of his undoubted talent. Eriksson was the main creative threat for Tottenham, but his inventiveness went unappreciated by his teammates. Aaron Lennon could only find the legs of Sheriff goalkeeper Vjekoslac Tomic after being played through by a delightful flick by the Dane, while Eriksson also put Defoe twice through on goal with fine passes but first the striker overran the ball and then shot tamely at the target.
There was more uncertainty for Tottenham’s defensive line after the break. Cadu’s shot fortunately hit his own man in a goal-mouth scramble before Spurs got the benefit of another unwitting block later on as Ricardinho’s effort struck Dawson and went wide.
Tottenham gradually got more control and, after Lennon struck a post, they got the benefit of a key deflection at the other end. Substitute Substitute Nacer Chadli laid the ball off to Defoe 25 yards out and the forward’s shot got the kind advantage of a ricochet off of defender Marcel Metoua to take it into the top corner of the net. It was perhaps not the manner in which the 31-year-old will have wanted to equal a record, but it continued his fine record in this season’s Europa League to four goals in three matches.
There was just one final chance for Sheriff when Isa stabbed wide having got behind the opposition defense again and only having Lloris to beat. It was the story of Sheriff’s night.