There was the obligatory pre-match footage of Lucas Moura’s winner at Ajax and then the declaration on the big screen at Tottenham’s magnificent stadium, one that is built to stage these kind of Champions League nights. “We’re back.”
For so long, it appeared that the grand return after a two-season absence would fall flat, even when Marseille were reduced to ten men in the 47th minute following Chancel Mbemba’s last-man foul on Son Heung-min. It was a dreadful misjudgment by the former Newcastle centre-half.
Spurs were predictable, one-paced and they laboured to create anything of clear-cut note. That was until the 76th minute when Richarlison stepped up to punch a way through and ensure the home crowd could reflect that all was well when it ended like this.
The £50m summer signing from Everton had not previously found the net for Spurs but he changed all that with a devastating one-two punch, a pair of headers marked by thumping power.
Marseille had held their shape even after the red card, keeping Spurs largely at arm’s length but, when Ivan Perisic shaped a cross from the left and Richarlison started to drift, they switched off. The lapse was decisive. Pau López , the one-time Spurs goalkeeper, was exposed and he was beaten by the sheer force of Richarlison’s connection.
The second one was even more devastating, Richarlison getting the better of Samuel Gigot to crash home from Pierre-Emile Højbjerg’s cross after Marseille had half-cleared a corner to the far side.
There would be angry exchanges in the stands upon the full-time whistle, Marseille fans clashing with the police, who had arrived to keep them apart from their Spurs counterparts. Objects were thrown and it appeared that a Pride flag was torn down. On the pitch, though, Spurs had got what they wanted.
Tottenham’s previous Champions League tie was the last-16 second-leg defeat at RB Leipzig in March 2020. It was a dispiriting night, with José Mourinho’s injury-hit team always feeling destined to go out, and there was a stark contrast in the pre-match optimism here, the surge of noise and energy at kick-off time. And yet the first-half would end with a smattering of boos from the Spurs support.
They were unhappy because it had been turgid fare. Spurs wanted to pinch possession and transition but, with Marseille dictating the tempo and shutting down the spaces, they could get little going. Antonio Conte’s team struggled to muster pressure on the ball and it was a good thing for them that Hugo Lloris got down to beat away a Matteo Guendouzi drive on 45 minutes.
Guendouzi, the ex-Arsenal midfielder, heard predictable jeers, as did Nuno Tavares, who is on loan from Spurs’ north London rivals. Marseille have 12 players with past or current links to Premier League clubs and 11 of them were in the match-day squad. The odd man out? The suspended Alexis Sánchez, also previously of Arsenal.
Marseille were good in the first-half, particularly in the man-to-man duels. Guendouzi was prominent, their passing rhythms smooth. Harry Kane dropped deep to link Spurs’ play but it was thin gruel for his team.
Kane jinked inside from the right in the 34th minute only to see Tavares block and, shortly afterwards, he had a slightly clearer opening. Fed by Son on the right-hand side of the area, he was confronted by Eric Bailly. Kane took the shot early and dragged it wide of the far post.
Conte sent his players out minutes before those of Marseille for the second half – always a tell that it has not been good enough – and he watched the complexion of the game change with the sending-off.
Kane got Son away into space and, having given Mbemba a head start, the Spurs forward gobbled up the ground. Mbemba lunged with his wrong foot, the tackle was mistimed, too, and, when Son went down, the referee, Slavko Vincic, had only one decision to make.
Igor Tudor kept his wing-back system for Marseille, he pulled Guendouzi back into a midfield three and asked Spurs to break his team down. Conte introduced Dejan Kulusevski at right wing-back, seeking greater punch, and the Swede flickered, getting around the back of the Marseille defence and then seeing a shot deflect off target.
Sead Kolasinac, yet another ex-Arsenal player, who entered as a substitute, almost teed up his fellow replacement, Amine Harit, on 75 minutes before Richarlison got Spurs home. Ben Davies, another substitute, would preserve the clean sheet, producing an excellent block with the game’s last action.
“When we signed Richarlison, he said that he could not wait to play in the Champions League and listen to the music,” Conte said. “They were important words and this morning I reminded him of them. I told him: ‘Tonight you have your chance, enjoy this moment and try to do your best.’ He did that.”