José Mourinho made the point on Wednesday that it was 20 years to the day since his first game as a manager – a 1-0 defeat with Benfica at Boavista. Yet the Portuguese would not begin to imagine he has seen it all and the bizarre goings-on both before and during this one-off Europa League qualifier brought the latest reminder – particularly before.
Mourinho’s Tottenham goalkeepers had sensed that something was amiss when they went out to warm-up and the hard-to-believe truth was that their goal was too small. “They spend hours and hours and hours in the goal so they know when it is not the right dimension,” Mourinho said.
The Spurs manager wanted to check for himself and so the smattering of onlookers inside Macedonia’s national stadium were treated to the sight of him stretching up and gauging the distance to the crossbar. He, too, realised that it was too short.
“We got the UEFA delegate to confirm and yes it was 5cm smaller [too low],” Mourinho said. “We demanded for the goals to be replaced for goals of the right dimension.”
Cue a hasty adjustment at both ends of the stadium. The goals were taken down and, when they went back up, strangely, they were then of the correct height. Shkendija had to expect that they would be doing more defending than attacking, which is precisely what happened, so was this moving of the goalposts a deliberate trick?
The Macedonian champions pleaded ignorance. This is not their normal ground and they said that they knew nothing about it. Tell it to the Uefa suits, guys, who are sure tobe furious about this grievous breach of protocol. Mourinho found it funny and the photograph that he uploaded to Instagram summed up a darkly comic interlude during these strangest of times.
Covid-19 mask on, the stadium around him empty, Mourinho was captured with his arm raised towards the crossbar. “I thought I had grown but then I realised the goal was 5cms lower,” Mourinho wrote.
More serious for him was how Spurs threatened at one point to turn a procession towards a home play-off against Maccabi Haifa next Thursday for a place in the group phase of this competition into a problem.
Spurs were so much better than Shkendija in terms of ability that it felt as if a comfortable win had to be the only outcome. And while it ended up being so, Mourinho’s team contrived to make life difficult for themselves.
Shkendija had offered nothing in attacking terms and Spurs could be annoyed that Erik Lamela’s early goal had represented their only reward. But then the Shkendija winger, Valmir Nafiu, summoned the equaliser on 55 minutes with a screaming bolt from the blue and, for a brief spell, the ridiculous thought occurred that Spurs might find a way to lose. Shkendija had a couple of flickers in the final third. It was a jarring kind of craziness.
Mourinho had started with Harry Kane among the substitutes and, at 1-1, he felt sufficiently worried to send him on along with Giovani Lo Celso and then Lucas Moura. The move allowed Son Heung-min to switch from centre-forward to the left flank and, with Spurs stabilising, he put them back in front with a fine finish after Lucas’s shot had been parried by the wobbly goalkeeper, Kostadin Zahov.
Kane would give the scoreline the gloss it deserved when he headed home from Son’s precision centre and it was interesting to hear Mourinho say that “probably without Harry Kane we wouldn’t have changed the game.” It was not a good look that he had to turn to him, having started with a relatively strong line-up which featured a recall for Dele Alli in the No10 role. Alli found spaces but not an end product, blowing one gilt-edged o pening in the first-half.
Son got his first assist when he played Lamela into yards of space to finish but Spurs could not kill off their opponents. For all their possession, they created few clear-cut chances in open play until Nafiu’s vicious blast from 20 yards jolted them into action. Lamela and Kane missed from close-range before Son got them back on course.