Cristian Stellini was on the pitch, screaming at Harry Kane to release the through ball and, for a brief moment, it looked as though the Tottenham assistant manager, in charge of the team as the suspended Antonio Conte watched from the stands, was going to play it himself.
It was the final minute of stoppage time, nerve ends were frayed – actually, they were past that – and, when Kane delayed, Stellini spun on his heels and threw his hands into the air. Spurs were plainly determined to eke things out even further, to put everybody through the wringer; the theme of a wild and intense night.
But Kane knew what he was doing. Now he played the pass and there was Pierre-Emile Højbjerg streaking clear. How he kept his composure, the finish flashing in off the far post and Spurs were not just through to the Champions League last 16, they were through as the group winners, leapfrogging Eintracht Frankfurt at the last.
Tottenham had done the thing they have done too readily of late and failed to show up in the first half. When they trailed at the break to Chancel Mbemba’s header, it was the least that Marseille deserved. The French club were in line for a first qualification to the knockout rounds of this competition since 2011-12.
It had been billed as a psychological test for Spurs; the din inside this cauldron was relentless. It turned into something even more in the second half. Staring at elimination, Spurs had to dig into the depths of their resolve, to show their personality. During a second half that will live long in the memories of the travelling fans, they did so. It was Clément Lenglet who found the precious equaliser, the goal that stood to carry them through as runners-up, a header from Ivan Perisic’s whipped free-kick and they had the chances to have made life much easier for themselves.
Kane had a few while Højbjerg rattled the crossbar when he ought to have scored. It was a dominant second period from Spurs when they most needed it but there were still a couple of wobbles as the end approached. This is Spurs. There had to be.
The script was there for a player with Arsenal connections to sink them because there were four in Marseille colours. Alexis Sánchez bought a yard inside the area only to see Perisic block and then, in the 88th minute, Sead Kolasinac, who had entered as a substitute, swooped at the far post to meet a free header. To wails all around, he planted it past the post.
What a test it was for Conte, partly of his temperament because he would have hated being stuck in the stands after his red card against Sporting last week. He was bold with his starting lineup, picking the one that most supporters would have wanted – no Emerson Royal or Davinson Sánchez, both Ivan Perisic and Ryan Sessegnon, an extra attacker in Lucas Moura rather than an extra midfielder. But it all seemed to be going wrong.
Conte would switch to 3-5-2 in the 29th minute when Son Heung-min was forced off after Mbemba caught him across the face with a shoulder as he stepped up to contest a header. Son was scrambled. It looked a bad one. On came Yves Bissouma at the base of a three-man midfield.
Up to that point, Spurs had failed to connect their passing game. There were precious few options for the player on the ball and it only got worse for them before the interval. In truth, the formation looked more like 5-3-2, the wing-backs deep. Everyone was deep, inviting Marseille on. Spurs appeared nervous.
Igor Tudor’s team squeezed high, they won the duels and the breakthrough had been signposted. Sánchez glanced an early header past the far post and Hugo Lloris needed to save smartly from a Jordan Veretout blast on 34 minutes following a Sessegnon mis-kick.
Mbemba’s goal came after Sessegnon shepherded the ball over the line for a corner, wrongly believing that the last touch had been off a Marseille player. When the ball was played short to Veretout, he crossed deep and nobody picked Mbemba’s run. Up in the press box, a bloke picked up a TV and whirled it above his head.
The only thing that Spurs could point to before half-time was a Kane shot in stoppage-time that Pau López tipped over (it looked to be going high). When the corner was half-cleared, Højbjerg lashed wide.
Yet Spurs were transformed upon the second-half restart, playing with greater intensity and the elixir of belief. They began to look forwards, not sideways, with Rodrigo Bentancur excelling in midfield, driving with the ball; ditto Højbjerg. Kane was also fundamental to the turn-around, linking the play and getting into dangerous areas.
Conte betrayed little emotion when Lenglet scored, although his insides churned. Belatedly, there was freedom to Spurs’ game and as Marseille pushed – Amine Harit flashed one shot high – the visitors threatened to pick them off. Kane’s big chance came on 64 minutes but he could not react after López spilled a Royal cross. Royal made a difference after coming on for the out-of-sorts Sessegnon.
Spurs were on their way. In the small hours of Tuesday, Marseille Ultras had set off fireworks above their team hotel, trying to throw them off balance. They would find their stride and in pulsating fashion.