Football Features

Spurs’ “Ultimate Understudy” shines – Ten things you may have missed from Europa League matchday one

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 22:35, 22 October 2020 | Updated: 9:43, 30 March 2021

It was a dramatic night of action as the 2020/21 Europa League got going with some big wins.

Arsenal, Spurs, Milan, Villarreal and Leverkusen all recorded opening wins and there was even room for a couple of shocks. Here are some things you might have missed from this evening of football:

1. Spurs have found their Kane back-up

For years the big issue with Spurs was the fact that they didn’t have a back-up for Harry Kane. Many men were tried in the role but beyond a couple of big goals from Fernando Llorente none of them made a dent. And it’s understandable; how do you remain motivated to play when you know that as soon as Kane is fit, he’s in the XI? How do you sign someone with enough quality to keep the team’s level up but also has a low-enough profile that being left on the bench won’t chafe them.

Well Spurs appear to have found their man with Carlos Vinicius. Signed on loan from Benfica (with the help of Jorge Mendes), Vinicius showed against LASK why he is the ideal player to back-up Kane.

Here we have an unselfish striker who will make runs wide in order to play opponents in (as he did for Spurs’ first goal when he smoothly set-up Lucas Moura) or when he “did a Kane” and dropped deep to play someone else in behind (like he did when he put Dele through for what should have been Spurs’ third) OR make intelligently deft touches to make goalscoring chances (like he did with his beautifully deft header put Heung-min Son on to score Spurs’ third).

Alright he’s not as lethal as Kane is, missing a good chance to score a debut goal with a header, but he works hard and has the pace to sprint in behind. you can see the traits in him where he will keep Spurs looking good even without their talisman. And that’s something Spurs have never been able to say about any of their other strikers. José Mourinho has found Spurs’ ultimate understudy.

2. Milan roll back the years

Milan vs. Celtic is a Champions League classic. The pair have met 8 times before, including four times in 2007. Every one of those clashes in 2007 (first the 2006/07 round of 16 and then in the 2007/08 group stage) was an absolute classic. Milan obviously superior but Celtic obstinate and backed by a superhuman atmosphere at Celtic Park where they drew 0-0 and, quite incredibly, beat Milan 2-1 when they were European Champions.

With those great clashes in mind, 2020’s match-up was decidedly underwhelming. Celtic are nowhere near their colossal peak in 2007 where they were one Kaka wondergoal away from making the Champions League quarter-finals. Milan, however, are finally on the way back up the mountaintop after years in the wilderness. They sit top of Serie A with a perfect four wins from four and brought that quality into tonight.

Celtic could never lay a hand on their visitors. nor were they able to keep them out. Milan bossed the game and made use of Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s gravity to find others in space

3. Bale easing his way back

Spurs’ biggest signing this summer in terms of profile was of course the return of Gareth Bale. And the Englishman made his first start of the season tonight against LASK. And, well, he was… average.

It’s hard to explain really but Bale carried a sense of threat when on the ball even if no actual threat was ever generated besides one incident. Bale forced the own goal that was Spurs’ second when he lovely trivela cross was turned into his own net by Andres Andrade.

He last an hour before being subbed, and he looked decent. He’s clearly easing his way back to fitness. It’s early yet so no one’s getting the pitchforks out, but Spurs are going to want much more from their new no. 9.

4. Kemar lifts the Roofe

Steven Gerrard’s Rangers are a defensive powerhouse. In the 16 games they’ve played this season across the Scottish Premiership and Europa League, they’ve conceded just four goals. Four! They’ve kept an enormous 13 clean sheets. Teams sometimes go whole seasons and keep less than 13 clean sheets!

Their 13th clean sheet came as they rolled over Standard Liege. For 90 minutes it looked a routine victory. Impressive, for sure (they had 12 shots to Standard’s 4 and didn’t give up a single shot on target) but nothing remarkable for a side with the kind of ambitions Rangers have.

That is, until the 93rd minute. When Kemar Roofe won a 50/50 halfway inside his own half, got control of the ball and started running. He then won another 50/50, this time with Zinho Vanheusden, before holding that same defender off again as he drove towards the half-way line. Merveille Bokadi forced him to his right, so Roofe went right and skipped by Nicolas Gavery like he wasn’t even there.

By now he was in space and had a look up to see Arnaud Bodart off his line, so he took a chance and smashed the ball goalward. Well he aimed it perfectly and the ball soared through the air, over the hands of the despairing Bodart and into the back of the net. A miraculous goal that lit up the match and stole the headlines from Rangers’ superb defence.

5. Darwin Nunez: remember the name

Benfica are one of the best sides in the world when it comes to scouting talent and on the evidence of tonight’s win in Poland it appears they have done it again with the signing of Uruguayan striker Darwin Nunez. The centre-forward had been held goalless in his first appearances in the Primeira Liga, but in his Europa League debut he hammered home an incredible hat-trick to lift his team to victory.

Darwin Nunez: remember the name

6. Take announces himself

Take Kubo has endured a frustrating start to life in Villarreal, often being left on the bench by Unai Emery and then trying too hard when he does get on the pitch. Today however he got the start against Sivasspor and the young Japanese winger ran riot.

Kubo scored the opening goal of the game before helping double Villarreal’s lead with a wonderfully deft assist for Carlos Bacca. Then after Sivasspor raced back into the game, Kubo created a huge go-ahead goal for Juan Foyth from a corner. Kubo was so good that Foyth’s own masterclass (100% pass completion including one stunning assist for Paco Alcacer) went under the radar.

18 years old and two assists plus a goal on Europa League debut? Take Kubo is right at home on the European stage and this won’t be the last we hear of him this season. You can bet on that. This boy is destined for the very top of the game and this is just the start for him.

7. The Kelechi Show

While Carlos Vinicius was putting on a show in London, Kelechi Iheanacho was busy making his own case for this to be The Night of the Backups as he took his chance starting ahead of Jamie Vardy to have a direct hand in all three goals Leicester scored.

First he battled in the box, fighting to recover a loose ball before flicking it to James Maddison to open the scoring. Next he rolled the ball through for Harvey Barnes to carry it through the Zorya defence to double their lead. Then in the second-half he latched onto a loose pass at the back to turn and slap it home with a quickness to get a goal for himself.


8. Napoli: don’t believe the hype

Napoli have been up and down in Serie A this season. First they beat Genoa 6-0, then they lost 3-0 to Juventus, but after that they thrashed the awesome Atalanta 4-1. Tonight, however, they fell 0-1 at home to AZ despite putting out an XI full of Champions League quality players. Rino Gattuso has done better than most expected him to, but it’s clear that he’s unable to drill any consistency into his players as we saw tonight. Napoli could beat anyone on their day but the long season, including two-legs in the knockout rounds, should make their progression extremely difficult.

9. CSKA’s dancing men

CSKA could only draw away to Wolfsberger AC, but they were absolutely mesmeric with the ball at their feet. With Nikola Vlasic and half-time substitute Chidera Ejuke completing a staggering 21 take-ons between them (having attempted only 23). Vlasic got an assist but honestly just looking at the absurd nature of their dribbling and you have to think that if they could just have been more consistent at the sharp ends of the pitch they could have walked away with a big win.

10. Leverkusen don’t play so Nice

The biggest win on the night belonged to Bayer Leverkusen, who despite losing Kai Havertz at the weekend absolutely tore Nice to shreds at the BayArena. The score was 6-2 and Karim Bellarabi bagged himself a brace off the bench. This is a deep squad coached brilliantly by Peter Bosz (who reached the final in 2017 with a young Ajax side) so are worth keeping an eye on as the tournament progresses.