Aurier’s over-hit cross after 40 minutes ended up in the net before Son’s 87th minute sealed a 2-0 victory which moves Spurs into fourth place, above bitter rivals Arsenal, but it was a laboured display which made manager Mauricio Pochettino’s assertion that his team are already out of the title race look worryingly accuurate.
In days gone by, this would have been seen as a decent victory, and in terms of the scoreline it certainly was. But the powerful combination of Wembley and the Champions League is a mixed blessing for Spurs this season - because although playing at the iconic stadium has raised the profile of the club across the world and inspired them to finish above Real in the group stage, it has also raised the bar in terms of what now excites their fans.
In the bread and butter of domestic football, Tottenham went into this match having already dropped nine points at home and the huge stadium felt half-empty and uninspiring as Harry Kane and Co struggled to break down Chris Hughton’s Brighton side which had taken just one point and scored only one goal in its last four matches.
There is a lot to do – and a lot to spend – in London at Christmas time, so it’s hard to blame Spurs supporters for staying away – and the crowd was still significantly bigger than the average attendance at White Hart Lane last season. But the empty seats and muted atmosphere (which prompted Brighton fans to sing ‘Is this the Emirates?’) only made their team’s task that little bit harder at a time when Champions League thrills have made these kind of fixtures look a little less appetising.
Even Pochettino admitted pre-match that his side have been distracted by their European adventure - Spurs will play Juventus in the last 16 in February and March next year - and have taken their eye off the ball after ‘spending a lot of energy’ on the Champions League. Their November included a famous 3-1 victory over Real Madrid but also defeats at both Arsenal and Leicester, plus a frustrating draw with West Brom, which rather proves his point.
This match, however, was played on the back of a 5-1 victory over Stoke at the weekend so there was an expectation that the run of poor form – which has already prompted Pochettino to admit his side are out of the title race with five months to go – had been put to an end.
A similar margin of victory was not easy to achieve against a Brighton side determined to dig in for a clean sheet after their own run of poor results, including a 3-1 defeat at Huddersfield last Saturday; and the first half was painfully lacking in clear-cut chances.
The bonus for Spurs was the presence on the field of Eric Lamela for the first time in more than a year after finally recovering from a hip injury, but the coach’s decision to leave Dele Alli and Moussa Dembele seemed like a gamble. Fortunately for Pochettino he got the bit of luck his gamble needed when full-back Serge Aurier fired in a deep cross from the right after 40 minutes – and saw it sail into the net for a 1-0 lead at half-time.
Both Kane and Lamela would have snatched another goal early in the second half it not for fine saves from Brighton’s Australian keeper Matt Ryan but the longer the match went on the more Brighton felt they could earn something on the break; something they almost did after 69 minutes when Tomer Hemed’s snap-shot tested Hugo Lloris.
Brighton, of course, are managed by a man who knows Tottenham well – Ireland legend Hughton, who spent 13 years as a player at White Hart Lane and also worked another 14 years there as coach and assistant manager. So if anyone understands the club’s tendency to be a bit ‘Spursy’ and make life unnecessarily difficult for themselves, it’s the former full-back. His team, led from the back by Derryman Shane Duffy, put in a real shift despite a clear lack of quality in attacking areas.
It wasn’t enough in the end. Kane almost doubled his side’s lead with a shot which hit the post late on before Son stopped to head in an Eriksen free-kick after 87 minutes, the ball deflecting in off Brighton defender Propper.
Lloris 6; Aurier 7, Dier 6, Vertonghen 6, Rose 6; Winks 5 (Dembele 67; 6), Sissoko 6; Lamela 6 (Alli 74; 6), Eriksen 7, Son 7 (Davies 90); Kane 6. Subs not used: Trippier, Vorm, Llorente, Foyth.
Ryan 7; Schelotto 6, Duffy 7, Dunk 7, Bong 6; Stephens 6, Propper 6; Iquierdo 5 (March 62; 6), Kayal 6 (Gross 78; 6), Knockaert 7; Hemed 6 (Murray 72; 6). Subs not used: Bruno, Goldson, Krul, Brown.