Jose Mourinho started the week by claiming Gareth Bale is “arriving” at something approaching his old self. Now, he’s arrived — but not quite in the way we imagined. The 31-year-old’s first goal of his second coming at Tottenham handed them a 2-1 win over Brighton, settling a game that would otherwise have been defined by a series of VAR controversies which left both teams feeling understandably aggrieved.
Mourinho has been careful to highlight that Bale is a different type of player from the one Spurs supporters fell in love with prior to his then-world-record £85.3 million move to Real Madrid in 2013, and perhaps nothing encapsulates that better than the sight of him planting a 73rd-minute header past Brighton goalkeeper Robert Sanchez. According to transfermarkt.co.uk, only six of Bale’s 56 goals for Spurs were headers, and the enduring memory of the Wales international from that period is a winger mesmerising defenders with the ball at his feet rather than a powerful aerial presence.
There was a warning sign of Bale’s threat in the air seconds after coming on as a 70th-minute substitute, the Welshman flicking on a corner to the back post where Harry Kane, caught momentarily flat-footed, failed to bundle the ball over the line from barely a yard out.
Bale didn’t have to wait long to go one better, and it was a goal imported directly from Madrid. Sergio Reguilon, who joined Spurs from Real in a £25m deal announced on the same September day as Bale’s return from the Spanish capital, picked the ball up in a dangerous position on the left but opted to cut inside on his right foot. That shift caught Brighton out, affording Bale a chance to drift into space where he met Reguilon’s pinpoint right-foot cross with an emphatic header low into the corner.
Mourinho had glowing words to say about Bale’s impact on Sunday and even threw a barb at Bale’s former club Real Madrid. “But today, great personality, great impact, very important goal for us. I am pleased especially for him because he deserves that. When I have five minutes, I’m going to Safari to look at Madrid websites to see what they say.”
Mourinho had flagged Bale’s progress behind the scenes in the build-up to Thursday’s dismal 1-0 Europa League defeat at Royal Antwerp. He was unable to lift Spurs out of their collective malaise in Belgium, lasting just 58 minutes before dropping to the bench here in one of nine changes to the starting lineup which also saw Dele Alli, Steven Bergwijn, Carlos Vinicius, Davinson Sanchez, and Serge Aurier left out of the matchday squad altogether.
On Sunday, though, the Welshman provided substance to back up Mourinho’s words. Playing off the right with Kane through the middle and Son Heung-min on the opposite flank also provided an exciting flash of the triumvirate that seemingly offers so much — with Bale’s ability to drift into central areas and cause problems like this a useful asset.
“For a week or so, I’m saying he’s improving,” said Mourinho. “And I told that is not just by watching him, but we have data that supports the training process. We knew. And the good thing is also Gareth knows. We share ideas and we share feelings.
“He doesn’t have 90 minutes of a Premier League match in his legs yet, so we are using the Europa League to complement his training process. We are using some matches in the Premier League when we decide to play him, and, of course, the normal tendency for him will be to be better and better and better.”
This wasn’t quite the overall reaction Mourinho had demanded given Brighton were the better side for long periods of this encounter, but Bale’s dramatic intervention takes Spurs up to second in the formative table and match-winning moments like this will only engender greater belief that a top-four place should be the minimum of the club’s aspirations this season.
They will surely have to improve overall, however, given they benefitted from a series of mystifying VAR calls to establish a first-half lead. Kane looked at Adam Lallana at least twice while the ball looped away from the Brighton penalty area before backing into his former England teammate, creating contact which referee Graham Scott deemed worthy of a Spurs free kick. VAR official Jon Moss then checked whether Kane was in fact in the box and told Scott to revise his decision to a penalty, which Kane, typically, converted impressively for his 11th goal of the season over all competitions and 199th with the club.
Brighton spent the rest of the opening 45 minutes combining persistent complaining to the officials with a gradual assertion of control on the game. If Kane was fouled, then so was Leandro Trossard when Matt Doherty pulled him back in the box as he tried to meet a 23rd-minute cross from the right. This time, much to Brighton’s frustration, VAR did not reverse the call on the field and award a penalty.
The visitors were, however, the recipients of the most baffling call of the night when Solly March appeared to foul Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg to win back possession in the lead up to Tariq Lamptey’s excellent equaliser, but after reviewing the incident pitchside, Scott stuck with his original view to award the goal.
“There are decisions that I think they should explain and not leave us in front of you [the media] and us explaining things that many, many times we don’t find an explanation to it,” Mourinho said. “I prefer not to speak about it. I see Scott as a good referee. He had the opportunity to go to the screen and watch the same thing that we watched on the bench on our iPad. He should explain, but I know that is not going to happen. Let’s move on and speak about a very difficult match that we won.”
Nevertheless, Spurs were still a little fortunate to end on the winning side as they struggled for much attacking fluency, with Brighton working effectively to prevent the slick moves through midfield which have epitomised Tottenham’s best displays in the opening weeks of the campaign.
Yet tonight Spurs are second in the table, and Bale is the headline act. Just as Mourinho said he would be.
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