At the most disarming of venues Tottenham Hotspur found their way through by dispatching the heavy artillery. Four days ago Mauricio Pochettino might not have imagined letting Harry Kane stretch out from the start against Fulham, much less if he had known a knock to his knee would render him a slight doubt; sometimes, though, a job needs doing properly and, if the purpose here was to blow the cobwebs of a sterile February away, then it was served conclusively.
Supporters foraging their way to Craven Cottage through the artisan food market in Bishops Park might have expected something closer-run. The six years since Fulham defeated Tottenham 4-0 here in the FA Cup fourth round feel like a lifetime for both clubs – the only remaining player of the 36 selected this time was Mousa Dembélé, who has switched sides – but it had been a weekend of old-fashioned footballing romance and this, still London’s most elegantly appointed arena, seemed the place for it.
There was to be no messing about by the river. Pochettino’s team selection had seemed one part pragmatism induced by fear of a replay, another part rebuke to a set of players whose bearings had been hopelessly awry during a defeat in Gent three days previously. Tottenham’s intensity had dropped badly in their previous four games; the thinking seemed to be that it would be too high-risk a strategy to muddle along without Kane, Christian Eriksen, Dele Alli and company. A further stutter might have been excusable in their absence but at what price to the team’s already failing momentum?
It was, in any case, an occasion for seriousness. Slavisa Jokanovic is not the kind of man who would laugh politely at a joke to make the teller feel better but his Fulham team has had its share of fun in this season’s Championship. Crisp, fluent and mobile when at their best, they have been outscored by only three of their second-tier peers and may yet enter the play-off reckoning. In putting four past Hull City in the previous round of the Cup, they had performed with the buoyancy of a team capable of exposing sluggishness in feted opponents.
Here, though, they came across a Tottenham side at its most purposeful. Kane, pulling Fulham’s centre-backs around, had the demeanour of a man affronted by his recent dry spell – five games without a goal in open play – while the midfield quickly imposed itself against opposition who too often found themselves ahead of the ball.
That was the inconvenience suffered by Scott Malone, given a chastening afternoon at left-back by Eriksen and Kieran Trippier, whose poor positioning at a throw-in allowed the delivery for Kane’s first goal and who would also see the second come from his side. Tottenham were too sharp, too dismissive of Fulham’s ponderous attempts to play themselves back into contention; at times it resembled an exercise in chance creation, a drill of particular use in recent context.
If this was, against expectation, Harry’s game, then that went for more than one of the Tottenham side. Harry Winks, benefiting from the buffer of Victor Wanyama alongside him, was a vibrant presence throughout and thrived in the space he was allowed. It was Winks whose switch to Trippier set in train the move that doubled the lead; later he was joined briefly on the pitch by Scott Parker, whom he counted as a mentor during the 36-year-old Fulham player’s time at Tottenham. Parker can be pleased with how Winks, visibly more confident and front-footed as the season progresses, has kicked on; Fulham might reflect that the veteran’s presence could have been useful sooner in anchoring a side that struggled for any measure of control.
As the minutes ticked down, a concession to levity crept in. Alli, whose first-time pass to create Kane’s hat-trick characterised a perceptive afternoon’s work, unsuccessfully dummied a chest-high ball down the left flank and raised a chuckle in response, partly indulging his own impudence and partly apologising to the nearby Son Heung-min. Tottenham had left Gent with frowns on their faces and a rebuke from Dembélé, who said the game had “opened our eyes”, ringing in their ears; if Pochettino had gambled on his most creative forces bringing the joy back, he had by now been repaid.
It was job done but it does not answer everything. There remains the impression that Pochettino has a blind spot where Tottenham’s ancillary attacking options are concerned. Vincent Janssen, recalled to the bench after watching from the stands in Gent, remained there and there was no place in the matchday squad for Georges-Kévin Nkoudou. It said little for the manager’s trust in them that the bigger guns had to haul themselves out for another turn here; in practice Kane and company need more reliable support and that means better summer recruitment. “It was a great opportunity today to show that we are alive,” Pochettino said afterwards, but some of the squad players he might like to rely on appear dead men walking.
They are certainly unlikely to have been rested in preparation for what the manager terms a “final” against Gent at Wembley. Kane and company will be needed to fire Tottenham through that one too. They have, at least, set them back on course.