Tottenham Hotspur were laid low by a flu virus and then caught a cold as they were held to a draw by relegation-threatened Southampton despite Harry Kane moving to within one goal of his Premier League century.
It was a frustrating result that means Spurs could fall five points behind fourth-placed Liverpool if Jurgen Klopp’s side win away to Swansea City on Monday evening, putting them in very real danger of missing out on Champions League qualification.
The score-line does not, truly, help Southampton either as they remain in the bottom three and a point behind 17th place Stoke City. But they showed enough fight – and went agonisingly close to winning – to probably help manager Mauricio Pellegrino survive. At least a little longer.
Afterwards Spurs midfielder Eric Dier claimed the race for the top four will “go down to the wire” but with his side’s next three league opponents being Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal these were points they could not afford to drop. And neither were they expected to.
The Spurs squad were in Barcelona for warm weather training last week with captain Hugo Lloris and play-maker Christian Eriksen ruled out of this fixture because they were suffering from flu. Other players were affected and although manager Mauricio Pochettino later refused to say who, and stated it had not affected the performance, they were collectively below-par in a rain-sodden “battle” of an encounter.
Kane, though, had the chance late on to claim his 100th league goal, and the headlines once again, but dragged his low shot across goal and wide from a tight angle. A defeat would have been extremely tough on Southampton who had chances of their own and moments before Kane’s effort there was an even clearer opportunity for 17-year-old substitute Michael Obafemi, who had come on to make his debut, but who miscued badly in front of goal after meeting a Dusan Tadic cross.
That again highlighted Southampton’s weakness up front and Pellegrino is desperately hoping that reinforcements will soon arrive, using the money brought in by the £75million sale of Virgil Van Dijk, and moves are being made for the £50million pair of Monaco’s Guido Carrillo and Spartak Moscow Quincy Promes.
But the club’s hierarchy will also know that they have lost nine points now from leading positions at home – and that is more than any other other Premier League team. Damningly it is 11 league games without a win.
Southampton were gifted the lead here, making a slick start which was capped when captain Ryan Bertrand overlapped down the left to collect Tadic’s measured pass and crossed low into the penalty area. The ball had already ricocheted around the Spurs box and this time Davinson Sanchez attempted to take more decisive action by intercepting – only to slide in, toe-poking the ball goal-wards with it rebounding off the near post and squirting over the line to beat the stranded, stand-in goalkeeper, Michel Vorm.
It provoked a furious response. Dier drove a low shot against the outside of the post, after the ball broke to him from a corner with Bertrand denying Dele Alli as he attempted to turn, and then from another Ben Davies corner Kane simply brushed aside his marker, Jack Stephens, rose above Manolo Gabbiadini, and thumped a header emphatically into the net. The lead has lasted just 197 seconds.
It remained remarkably open. Both teams felt they had to win, for their contrasting reasons, and Spurs almost claimed the lead when Davies drove the ball powerfully across the area and Moussa Sissoko side-footed a volley from inside the six-yard area that just flew wide.
Southampton also went close when Stephens met a superb, in-swinging free-kick by James Ward-Prowse – and few English players deliver a more threatening set-piece – but the defender could not keep his header down with the ball skimming narrowly over the bar.
More chances came although eventually the stickiness of the pitch, the bone-jarring effort, slowed the game down while Spurs sorely lacked the clever guile of Eriksen to unpick their opponents. Nevertheless Alli and Kane went close and then Sissoko fought for possession, squaring to substitute Erik Lamela who poked a close-range shot that seemed destined to find the net but for Stephens’ lunge to deflect it wide.
Could Southampton capitalise? The crowd roared them on – there were certainly no signs of dissent towards Pellegrino – and Sanchez did well to block a shot from Sofiane Boufal as he ran onto the area before another replacement, Obafemi, signed from Leyton Orient’s academy, had his chance. But they could not find the breakthrough as the ball skimmed off his boot.
And neither, despite five minutes of added time, could Spurs who had come into this match having collected 13 points from a possible 15 including a 5-2 demolition of Southampton on Boxing Day. But they were out-of-sorts.