Antonio Conte praised Tottenham’s improving mentality as Son Heung-min’s hat-trick enabled his team to capitalize on their rivals’ defeats to move three points clear of Arsenal in the contest to qualify for the Champions League.
Manchester City and Liverpool may have other matters on their minds but they are the only Premier League sides to have accumulated more points than Spurs since Conte was appointed five months ago.
“Are you watching Arsenal?” inquired the traveling fans, who can look ahead to facing their north London rivals on 12 May with increasing confidence after this sixth win in seven games, which followed their rivals’ home defeat by Brighton. Spurs are in control of their own Champions League fate.
Remarkably, after Son’s third-minute opener, Villa were the stronger side, until Dejan Kulusevski made it 2-0 in the sixth minute of the second half. Then Villa fell apart. Steven Gerrard’s pre-match message that he would be re-evaluating the captaincy in the summer obviously did nothing to inspire Tyrone Mings and co who fell to a fourth successive defeat.
As a measure of how forceful Villa were in the first half, Hugo Lloris had to make the joint-most saves he has made in a single half of a Premier League match to keep out the best Danny Ings, Ollie Watkins and Philippe Coutinho could throw at him. Villa, aggressive in the extreme, had 14 efforts on goal in this period. Overall, their expected goals tally was 1.7 compared with Spurs’ somewhat bizarre XG of one.
To think that Conte was saying it would take “a miracle” for Spurs to qualify for the Champions League not so long ago. Now they are firm favorites as Arsenal and Manchester United falter and West Ham still hope to progress in the Europa League.
“It was a great win for us, especially coming after your rivals have played and lost: Wolverhampton, Manchester United and Arsenal,” he said. “It is very important in this moment that we don’t fade. In the first half we suffered a bit with the intensity of the pressure. But we are working with this.
“A top team thinks it’s the right moment to improve and exploit the situation. It’s not only tactical, technical and physical, there is the mentality. Today showed me they want to improve this aspect.”
Villa’s obvious downfall was their inability to deal with simple long balls down the centre, which contributed to three of the four goals.
From Eric Dier’s straight pass, Ezri Konsa’s mistimed header fell to Harry Kane whose shot rebounded off Matty Cash for Son to half-volley home, left-footed.
Villa came out fighting like their livelihoods depended on salvaging a positive result. Matt Doherty had to be substituted with a knee injury following Cash’s thunderous challenge and Sergio Reguilón and Kulusevski also required treatment as Villa flew into the kind of on-the-edge tackles that characterized their manager’s early playing days.
Lloris may be a good judge, when he looks back on this game, of which of Villa’s umpteen goal attempts in the remainder of the first half came closest to an equalizer. The Spurs keeper funnelled one effort up over the bar after a brilliant run and fulminating left-footed shot from Jacob Ramsey, parried John McGinn’s left-footer and was relieved Ings did not catch his volley better after Coutinho’s free-kick caught Spurs napping.
Watkins headed over from Coutinho’s left-wing cross when free, Cash had a volley saved then Coutinho’s cunning free-kick was fisted out by Lloris as Spurs, somehow, held on.
Gerrard said: “The first half was the best performance we’ve had together. I can’t remember many times in my career being so happy, so proud, coming off the pitch 1-0 down. We were dominant, aggressive and suffocated Tottenham. We created enough chances to have won more than one football game. But we couldn’t execute.”
For the second goal, Kane beat Konsa in the air to nod the ball down for Kulusevski, who was allowed to take a couple of touches before drilling in, and then when Cristian Romero clipped his lofted pass to Kane, his flicked header enabled Son to race clear and finish.
The South Korean completed his hat-trick five minutes later when he ran on to Kane’s pass, slipped the ball off for Kulusevski and dropped off to sidefoot home with ease from 12 yards out for his 17th league goal of an ever-improving season.