Tottenham have emerged as the marathon men of elite-level European football. No team in any of the continent’s top five divisions have played more games than them this season. This wastheir 39th fixture and the 10th in the Europa League alone, but they were able to find a sprint in the first half to ease beyond Wolfsberger of Austria.
There were goals during an impressive opening 45 minutes for Son Heung-min, Gareth Bale and Lucas Moura – confidence boosters for the latter pair, in particular – and some encouraging flickers too from Dele Alli on his first start since 10 January.
The insecurities that have plagued Spurs in recent weeks bubbled to the surface in the second half. It might sound strange given the final scoreline but they wobbled, giving away a penalty for 3-1 and being lucky not to slip to 3-2 when the Wolfsberger winger, Christopher Wernitznig, watched a shot bounce down off the crossbar and away to safety off the line.
José Mourinho could be a little vexed at that point. It felt as if his players had been affected by complacency. Yet Carlos Vinícius, on for Son at half time, added a late fourth to offer a more accurate reflection of the gulf in quality between the teams. The return leg of this last-32 tie has been rendered a formality.
Although Mourinho left Harry Kane at home, he took no chances with his lineup, starting with Son even if he had run more than 28km in last week’s extra-time FA Cup loss at Everton and the Premier League defeat at Manchester City. Son was lively in the early running, curling one shot past the far post and seeing another blocked before he put his team ahead.
It was a slick incision by Spurs up the right, Matt Doherty collecting a pass from Lucas and feeding it to Bale, who had darted into the area. Bale’s cross was low with a bit of fizz and Son, stooping to meet the flight of it, guided a clever header into the far corner.
Wolfsberger set up to go for it, and why not? It was arguably the biggest tie of their history and they did not want to die wondering. The manager, Ferdinand Feldhofer, strung three forward-thinking midfielders behind two strikers and, as always, tried to press high. But it left wide spaces in behind and Spurs did more than eye them covetously.
Mourinho’s front four enjoyed themselves in the first half. Alli mixed hard running with enterprise, including the moment on 20 minutes when he nutmegged Dominik Baumgartner near to the byline and shot at goal. It deflected just wide. From the corner, Eric Dier ought to have done better with a header.
Bale’s goal was a trademark finish, running in behind his full-back, Jonathan Scherzer, then chopping back inside and watching him slide past him. The finish was clubbed home with his left foot. Lucas was too quick and well-balanced for Wolfsberger’s defenders, slaloming away from three of them before shooting low into the net.
The Austrians had a couple of first-half chances, with the big one being a close-range Dario Vizinger header which Hugo Lloris did well to tip up against the crossbar and away, but the tie felt over at the interval.
Wolfsberger, though, refused to lie down and Mourinho felt his blood boil as his players eased off in the second period, when they gave their opponents too much room. Bale went close in the 50th minute but Spurs conceded when Dier played out from the back to Moussa Sissoko, only for the midfielder to take a heavy touch and be robbed by Christopher Wernitznig. Sissoko reacted by taking him out and Michael Liendl rolled the stonewall penalty past Lloris.
Wolfsberger felt the belief swell and, when Liendl teed up Wernitznig, he was denied only by the finest of margins. No Kane, no Son, no drive. It was difficult to ignore the feeling. Perhaps fatigue was a factor and it said much that Mourinho was moved to introduce Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg on 78 minutes to help to see the game out. Vinicius, though, ensured that Spurs finished with their tails up, guiding home after another substitute, Erik Lamela, had flicked on from a Hojbjerg cross.