It was a long way from being the most fluent performance of the Mauricio Pochettino era and there were times, particularly during a fraught first half, when the Tottenham support could imagine the worst-case scenario that their team would contrive to lose their grip on Champions League qualification.
But the mood and the match turned on one swish of Harry Kane’s boot early in the second half and with Chelsea failing to beat Huddersfield Town at Stamford Bridge, it turned into a night of celebration. For the third season in succession Pochettino has led Spurs into Europe’s elite competition and, given the budgets he has had to work with, nobody can say it is not an outstanding achievement.
Happily for all concerned, the club’s new stadium, into which they will move next season, will begin life as a Champions League venue. Spurs will finish as the top team in London for the first time since 1994-95 and they will wrap up third place if they beat Leicester City at Wembley on Sunday.
Pochettino had declared this match to be about the mentality of his players and they found a way to chisel out the result. Newcastle were proactive and they created plenty of opportunities and Rafael Benítez complained about the non-award of two penalties for his team – the biggest shout coming when Hugo Lloris caught Matt Ritchie in the 58th minute.
The Newcastle manager was entitled to say that “100% we deserved something” but, in the end, it was another occasion to illustrate why he wants his board to break the bank for a dead-eyed striker. The chances came and the chances went, with the substitute Jacob Murphy blowing a gilt-edged opportunity on 72 minutes.
Kane has still to rediscover the red-hot form he showed before his ankle injury in March and his air-kick for an attempted volley when gloriously placed in the 40th minute summed up both his and the team’s travails before the interval. But he dug deep and found a way to make the difference.
It was an excellent finish, swept high inside Martin Dubravka’s near post after Son Heung-min had drawn three Newcastle defenders to him and popped the ball back to Kane. The England striker now has 28 Premier League goals – three short of Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. The Golden Boot race could yet go to the wire.
Pochettino was elated and he made the point of thanking his backroom staff for their work. But he also highlighted how Tottenham had made light of their temporary move to Wembley. “People did not realise how tough it was for the players and for the fans too,” he said. “To achieve the top four under this condition – it is a massive achievement.”
Spurs were loose, anxious and too lateral in the first half and there were groans of frustration from the home crowd at the end of it, which sounded a lot like boos. With so much at stake, it was also surprising to see so many empty seats. The attendance of 54,923 was the club’s third lowest of the league season.Newcastle called the tune before the interval and they ought to have led. Jonjo Shelvey banged a free-kick from the edge of the area against the outside of a post while Lloris sprang to his right to keep out Jamaal Lascelles’s header. It was a wonderful save. Dwight Gayle headed too high from close-range and the visitors had further flickers.
Pochettino’s team and the home fans refocused during the interval. There was bellowed encouragement upon the restart and, shortly afterwards, Kane fashioned the breakthrough.
Spurs had other moments in front of goal through Jan Vertonghen, Dele Alli and Danny Rose but they could not relax. Ayoze Pérez miskicked after a Newcastle counter and when Lloris left his line to deal with the follow-up, there was contact with Ritchie. The referee, Neil Swarbrick, was unmoved. Benítez also felt Pérez ought to have had a penalty for a pull, although that was harder to see.
Murphy’s chance came after he outstripped the unconvincing Davinson Sánchez only to blaze high and it seemed it would not be Newcastle’s night.
The blot for Tottenham – and England – was the kick from Mohamed Diamé that forced Kieran Trippier off, although the home fans gave his replacement, Toby Alderweireld, a hero’s welcome. Trippier twisted awkwardly and Pochettino declared himself “a little bit concerned”. Otherwise he radiated satisfaction.
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