Jose Mourinho saluted Dele Alli after the Tottenham midfielder ensured his side can still save their troubled season with a virtuoso display in Wednesday’s 4-0 rout of Austrian minnows Wolfsberger in the Europa League last 32 second leg.
Alli scored a brilliant opener early in the first half and provided the assist when Carlos Vinicius doubled their lead after the break.
Gareth Bale netted from another Alli assist before Vinicius bagged his second as Tottenham ran out 8-1 aggregate winners after cruising to a 4-1 victory in the first leg last week.
While progress to the last 16 looked a formality after the comfortable first leg success, nothing has come easy for Tottenham this term.
So Mourinho will have breathed a sigh of relief that his team kept alive their best remaining hope of qualifying for the Champions League.
Close to leaving in the January transfer window, Alli played the key role in a rare start after being frozen out by Mourinho for much of the season.
“The goal I don’t need to speak, because everyone watched it and I believe that all around the world on all these sports TV, people are going to watch it, no need to talk about it,” Mourinho said.
“But for me the globality of the performance is what matters. He played very well in every aspect of the game.
“Of course he’s not fresh, of course you can feel that his performance like in the first leg from minute 55-60 is going to go down, which is normal due to the circumstances – injured, not training for a long time.
“But in this moment when we are going to play every three days, 10 matches in March, to have Dele back at this level is amazing.”
A dismal run of six defeats in their last eight games in all competitions had seen Tottenham plunge to ninth place in the Premier League and crash out of the FA Cup.
They are languishing nine points behind fourth placed West Ham in the race for a top four finish, while Mourinho is mired in the worst run of his career.
– Second to none –
Amid reports that Tottenham’s players are bored with his training sessions and conservative tactics, Mourinho this week insisted his methods are “second to none”, claiming morale among his squad was still high.
But the former Chelsea and Real Madrid boss is likely to face the sack unless Tottenham can salvage their woeful campaign by reaching the Champions League.
Realistically that means winning the Europa League and Tottenham remain on course, even if much sterner tests lie in wait in the later rounds.
Mourinho says Tottenham’s travails only underline how “beautiful” the rest of his career has been.
Whether the final verdict on his rocky spell at Tottenham will be so flattering may be determined by the end of the season.
Tottenham were regulars in the top four and reached the Champions League final under Mourinho’s predecessor Mauricio Pochettino.
But Pochettino, now in charge at Paris Saint-Germain, was sacked by chairman Daniel Levy after a poor run of results last season and Mourinho could easily suffer the same fate.
Well aware that some media critics and Tottenham fans claim he is past his best, the prospect of a humiliating exit against unheralded Wolfsberger was unthinkable for Mourinho.
For once, his players didn’t let him down.
Alli put Tottenham ahead after just 10 minutes in eye-catching style.
When a loose ball fell to him 15 yards out and with his back to goal, Alli sent a superb bicycle kick looping into the far corner.
Vinicius benefitted from Alli’s excellence five minutes after half-time when the on-loan Benfica striker met the midfielder’s precise cross with a clinical far post header.
Bale came off the bench to fire into the top corner after another Alli assist in the 73rd minute.
Ten minutes later, teenager Dane Scarlett stole possession and teed up Vinicius to score from 12 yards.