Antonio Conte could hear the knock of opportunity. The Tottenham manager has been effective in beating the teams that his club would like and expect to beat, devouring the lower-hanging fruit, and Southampton had been cast as such – fairly or otherwise.
With West Ham struggling to find their groove and Manchester United in profligate mood, the path towards a Champions League finish has been lit.
And yet Spurs fluffed their lines. They would get nothing, which was what they deserved, in the first serious misstep of Conte’s Premier League tenure.
There was a point in the second-half when Spurs looked as though they might get away with it. With Armando Broja lying stricken, having felt Emerson Royal jump all over him – a clear foul – Spurs surged forward through Harry Winks and Harry Kane and, when Lucas Moura crossed low, there was Son Heung-min to put them 2-1 up.
Tempers flared, with Southampton furious at the non-award of a free-kick and Conte then feeling the red mist come down as he feared that the visitors were trying to put pressure on the VAR, John Brooks. The Premier League would advise that the offence had come too early in the move.
Southampton refused to entertain the hard luck story. They had pummelled Spurs during the first-half, playing some fast and fluent stuff only to blow a hatful of chances, Broja’s goal that cancelled out a Jan Bednarek own goal their only reward. Now they picked themselves up off the canvas again.
The goals were provided by James Ward-Prowse with trademark whipped crosses but they were characterised, equally, by static Spurs marking. They had lived on the end of their defensive nerves for much of the night, Conte feeling that errors on the ball had also played their part in inviting difficulties. Now they cracked.
First, Mohammed Elyounoussi sprinted into a huge seam of space to get in front of Emerson to head the equaliser after a lengthy sequence of Southampton passes. And then Ché Adams melted away from Davinson Sánchez and Emerson to nod the winner. Ralph Hasenhüttl charged onto the pitch in celebration. After the 1-1 draw at home to Manchester City in Southampton’s previous league match, here was further evidence of the football and fighting spirit he wants.
There would almost be a late twist. Steven Bergwijn, whose stoppage-time goals had brought Spurs their outlandish comeback win at Leicester, had again entered as a substitute and he again found the net with the 90 minutes up, spinning to turn home after Cristian Romero had headed back a Kane cross. This time, Brooks had to act in the VAR bunker because Bergwijn was offside and Southampton could celebrate. They jump up into 10th place.
“This is why we love this game because you see ups and downs,” Hasenhüttl said. “The first-half performance was one of the best I have seen from us. I’ll never forget this game.”
Southampton had been much the more cohesive team in the opening 45 minutes, finding spaces, seeming to have longer on the ball, the “right players in the right positions” as Hasenhüttl put it, and the stadium was an angry place on the half-time whistle, the home fans booing loudly. They ought to have been grateful that the contest was not over.
Southampton’s wastefulness was a theme, which was sparked when Adams shot too close to Hugo Lloris in the early running, having run past Sergio Reguilón to meet a cross from the excellent Elyounoussi. He had to score and the same could be said of Reguilón in the 16th minute after Spurs broke and Kane squared for him. With the freedom of the penalty area, Reguilón lost his composure, swatting straight at Fraser Forster.
Spurs went ahead when Lucas Moura surged and released Pierre-Emile Højbjerg with a lovely outside-of-the-boot pass. Son darted to meet the subsequent cross but it was the outstretched leg of Bednarek that diverted the ball past Forster.
Southampton’s response was impressive. Broja looks a rare prospect – a fusion of pace, power and skill – and his goal was well-taken after a slip by Ben Davies inside the area and a failure to clear by Sánchez on the second phase. Romain Perraud was allowed to pull back a low cross by Emerson and Broja, loosely marked, opened up his body to sidefoot home.
It was the ones that got away before the break that bothered Hasenhüttl, with Broja spurning the clearest one. He burst away from Sánchez only to drag wide of the post. Conte kicked a bucket of water in fury. Earlier, Stuart Armstrong had sent a free header towards the bottom corner, fully extending Lloris, and there would be the scrambles from corners just before the break – the second one ending with Perraud rasping a drive against the crossbar. Southampton could also point to a Ward-Prowse shot that drew a fine save from Lloris and two efforts from Armstrong that flashed wide.
Spurs were better in the second-half, as Conte introduced his January signings, Rodrigo Bentancur and Dejan Kulusevski; the former showed flashes of class. Kane headed down and over and Spurs were set fair when Son scored.
Southampton would only dig deeper.
“We made many, many mistakes, especially with the ball in the first-half,” Conte said. “We did well in the second half but then we have to defend better. We are improving but we are still too emotional. We have to be more stable. At 2-1 up, we have to manage the situation better.”