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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

A game of missed opportunities as Spurs foiled by Southampton

Kane's 99th Premier League goal cancels out Sanchez's own goal in an otherwise game to forget at St Mary's

Tottenham's Harry Kane scores a header from a corner against Southampton. Matthew Childs / Reuters
Tottenham's Harry Kane scores a header from a corner against Southampton. Matthew Childs / Reuters

Sometimes games are defined by what did not happen, rather than what did. Southampton missed the chance to extricate themselves from the bottom three. Tottenham Hotspur failed to take the opportunity to elevate themselves into the top four. Harry Kane did not become the 27th member of the Premier League’s 100 club.

The two teams could rue the points that got away, though Kane, dragging a 90th-minute shot wide, almost earned Tottenham all three. As it was, he had to settle for a 99th top-flight goal. He will surely become the second quickest, after Alan Shearer, to reach the landmark. Inevitably, ironically, his equaliser at St Mary’s brought the chorus that he is a one-season wonder.

He is not, just as Tottenham are not a one-man team. But with Christian Eriksen ill and missed, Dele Alli disappointing and the recent talisman Son Heung-min less influential and substituted, a reliance on Kane was apparent. It amounted to an underwhelming return to his first English club for Mauricio Pochettino, just over five years after Southampton appointed him.

His old employers remain imperilled. They have now gone 11 league games without a win. They may not look one of the three worst sides, but defensive difficulties helped Kane score and draw specialists have shown a lack of ruthlessness in either box. Nor, really, did they look a team with only 15 goals in 18 home league games, but the numbers illustrate how they have not been productive enough.

But Southampton started positively and soon led. Manolo Gabbiadini, in for the ill Shane Long, had the first shot within 30 seconds. Dusan Tadic, relocated to the left, delivered a couple of menacing crosses with Gabbiadini and Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg failing to apply the finishing touch. Yet Tottenham failed to heed the warning. Another raid down Spurs’ right flank brought a greater reward. Tadic fed the overlapping Ryan Bertrand and his low centre was turned into his own net by a sliding Davinson Sanchez.

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Yet if, with Serge Aurier struggling, Tottenham’s frailty on the right was evident, Southampton’s susceptibility to the aerial ball was still more apparent. Eric Dier hooked a shot against the post after they failed to clear a corner. Another brought a goal, Kane evading Jack Stephens to head in Ben Davies’ centre.

Stephens’ set-piece problems occurred in both penalty areas. When James Ward-Prowse delivered a free kick with such precision and venom to offer reminders of why his dead-ball delivery has been compared to David Beckham’s, he found the unmarked centre-back. Stephens headed wastefully wide.

He was playing as Maya Yoshida was absent, depriving the defence of leadership, and the £75 million (Dh382m) Southampton recouped for Virgil van Dijk remains unspent. Mauricio Pellegrino failed in a bid to bring Theo Walcott back. Instead the often unadventurous Argentine’s gambit was to bring on winger Sofiane Boufal and then 17-year-old striker Michael Obafemi for the fading Gabbiadini.

But Pochettino set more of the tone as he tried to inject fluency. First he moved Son infield to operate as a second striker ahead of a midfield diamond, then he swapped to 4-3-3. It brought a handful of chances. Kane miscued a volley from another Davies corner. Alli drilled a shot inches past the far post. Jan Vertonghen skimmed a shot narrowly wide.

A scrappy second half brought bookings and misses. Incidents became emblematic: when Alli missed the target even after the whistle had gone and goalkeeper Alex McCarthy did not move, when Erik Lamela froze when he had the chance to shoot, when Obafemi scuffed a shot when he could have marked his debut with a goal. Moments, like the match, felt a missed opportunity.