Tottenham can see the glint of silverware at the end of what has been a very long tunnel after they held on to a 1-0 victory over Chelsea in the first leg of their Carabao Cup semi-final.
Spurs, of course, haven’t won a trophy since beating their London rivals in the same competition here at Wembley 11 years ago — and manager Mauricio Pochettino admitted in midweek that it may take a change in transfer policy off the pitch to see his side challenge regularly in future.
Fans will no doubt wait with bated breath to see if that statement translates into action in the transfer window this month.
But the first step for Tottenham, especially if they want to keep their best players, is to at least get something in the trophy cabinet to prove their ambition.
That’s why this hard-fought victory, in which Chelsea will say they were unlucky to lose to a controversial Harry Kane penalty, is so important. It may be only half-time and Chelsea will certainly believe they can turn it around at Stamford Bridge, but Spurs have put themselves in with a chance of what would be a ‘home’ final in the Carabao Cup on February 24.
“Tonight was hard work,” Spurs defender Danny Rose said. “It was a great team performance, everyone dug in and I think we deserved it in the end.”
This semi-final was played in front of only 51,000 fans at Wembley, not because of a lack of interest in the fixture but because of a ruling by Brent Council that, having unexpectedly extended their stay at the stadium, Spurs would only be allowed a certain number of games at maximum capacity until they finally move out.
That, however, is for the future, and, although the focus will quickly turn to Tottenham’s Premier League clash with Manchester United on Sunday, there’s no doubt that they, and Chelsea, are taking the Carabao Cup seriously.
Maurizio Sarri, whose side host Newcastle on Saturday, is also still looking for his first trophy in a complicated first season at Stamford Bridge and, like Pochettino, he fielded a strong side to prove his intention.
It was a surprisingly open game, too.
Heung-min Son had a penalty claim turned down early on when challenged by Andreas Christensen in a lively opening and then Kane’s overhead kick was smartly saved as the hosts began well.
But Chelsea also threatened, primarily through winger Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has barely made it out of the headlines this week thanks to a long-running transfer saga with Bayern Munich.
He had one shot saved, set up Eden Hazard for an effort which whipped narrowly over the bar, and then hit the woodwork with a deflected cross just before half-time.
With striker Alvaro Morata left out because of a muscle injury, you suspect the Bayern story will run for some time yet. During the game, in fact, Sky Germany reported that a €33m bid from the German giants had been accepted — but the English club were desperately trying to keep their player until the end of the season, given their current lack of attacking options.
That version of events has yet to be confirmed but after three bids in a week it’s clear that Bayern are keen enough on the English teenager to leave the Chelsea board with a very difficult decision to make.
It wasn’t Hudson-Odoi who sparked the night into life, however.
Once again, after an FA Cup weekend of controversy, it was VAR which changed the game.
Kane looked marginally offside — and was flagged as such — when he raced through on goal and was brought down by Kepa Arrizabalaga.
But when referee Michael Oliver called for help, the video officials decided Kane had been level.
Not everyone could agree it was the right decision — but the one thing never in question was that Kane would put away the penalty. Which he did, and in convincing style, for the 160th goal of his Spurs career.
That strike was a psychological blow for the visitors, not just because of the decision-making process but because of memories of the way they lost 3-1 here at Wembley in November on a day when they were outplayed by their London rivals and lost for the first time this season.
Since then the Blues have been wobbly, losing at Wolves and at home to Leicester and being held to a goalless draw at the Bridge by Southampton, too.
There have also been high points to juxtapose — a 2-0 victory over Manchester City in particular— so the question whenever Sarri’s side plays these days is which version will turn up.
This time, in fairness, they played pretty well, especially in the second half, and were unfortunate to lose.
N’Golo Kante, still being used in an advanced role, almost drew them level when he got ahead of his marker from a Marcos Alonso cross and glanced a shot against the near post in the first half, and he also forced Gazzaniga into a smart save after the break.
When you consider Hudson-Odoi’s effort against the woodwork and a missed sitter by Andreas Christensen after 59 minutes, there was plenty of encouragement for Sarri for the second leg on January 22 — if only they had a striker to put away those chances.
That, however, has been the story of their season so far.
A strong transfer window and trophy would do wonders for both clubs.
TOTTENHAM: Gazzaniga 7, Trippier 7, Alderweireld 6, Sanchez 6, Rose 6, Winks 6 (Skipp 90), Sissoko 6, Eriksen 7(Llorente 90), Alli 6, Kane 7, Son 7 (Lamela 79; 6).
CHELSEA: Arrizabalaga 7, Azpilicueta 6, Rudiger 6, Christensen 6, Alonso 6, Kante 8 Jorginho 6, Barkley 6 (Kovacic 75; 6), Willian 6 (Pedro 63; 6), Hazard 6, Hudson-Odoi 7 (Giroud 80; 6).
Referee: Michael Oliver.