Six weeks’ pause for breath never looked so tempting. This match had a seesaw feel about it at the outset and went on to surpass itself; Tottenham and Leeds were exhilarating and exasperating in turn, often during the same sequence of play, but when the music stopped it was Antonio Conte who could savour the moment with his inimitable brand of arm-whirling euphoria. He had enjoyed watching Harry Kane and Ben Davies adorn their World Cup preparations with goals but nobody in the ground could have predicted the identity of the player who turned things on their head.
Rodrigo Bentancur had been helpless to prevent his opponent and namesake, the forward Rodrigo, from scoring his second outstanding goal of the game but need not have been concerned. Spurs were losing again with 14 minutes left but, by the time seven more had passed, the Uruguayan had converted two chances of his own. The first was a 15-yard drive deflected in via Luke Ayling, Leeds’s unfortunate substitute; next up was a close-range finish after stellar work from Dejan Kulusevski, whose return to the starting lineup after injury made all the difference for Tottenham. Now Conte can avoid too many awkward questions given Spurs will spend Christmas in the top four.
“It was really strange; tough,” Conte said. “Every coach doesn’t want to have this type of game, it shows a lot of instability in one side and the other side.” Tottenham were first to display it, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg allowing Brenden Aaronson to get the wrong side of him and slide through Crysencio Summerville, the diminutive young winger, who scored a well-taken fourth goal in four games.
Summerville could have scored again before Kane’s equaliser but Spurs had already been full of threat, the hapless Emerson Royal skying a sitter and Kulusevski irresistible on the right. Leeds and Jesse Marsch were left to fume when Illan Meslier, boxed in by Clément Lenglet and Richarlison, could not make clean contact with a corner. Kane took advantage emphatically via some nifty footwork.
“It’s a foul,” Marsch said, while Conte preferred to wax lyrical about the England captain’s preparedness for Qatar. “He’s in really good physical condition and in my opinion he’s also mentally stronger than before,” he said. “I see a player that is ready, I see in his eyes a desire to be a protagonist in the best competition in the world.”
Rodrigo will not be there with Spain but his volley just before half-time, meeting Rasmus Kristensen’s header adroitly, would have been worthy of the stage. Spurs needed to do it all again and Davies, whose 20-yarder squirmed through a combination of Meslier and Kristensen after the former had blocked from Kane, restored morale with the second period six minutes old.
Leeds dictated possession in the subsequent spell, with Spurs oddly flat, and appeared primed to win when Marc Roca played Rodrigo through for an immaculate finish into the only far-post spot Hugo Lloris could not cover. Tottenham claimed Bentancur had been fouled by Tyler Adams in the buildup; they may have had a point but, in seizing on a weak clearance to equalise again via that small stroke of fortune, he set up a hefty dose of revenge.
Kulusevski’s contribution to the clincher, reaching the byline for the umpteenth time before nudging the ball back cleverly, was outstanding; how Spurs have missed the sometimes understated but unfailingly effective Swede since September. There was still time for Adams, who Kane had deceived in the act of scoring, to be dismissed for a second yellow card and ensure his manager departed feeling desolate.
“I’m gutted,” Marsch said. “I feel like someone has ripped my heart out. I thought we had control of the match but then we let it slip.” His angst was understandable.
A relieved Conte reflected on the impact of a taxing spell, which included the death of his popular fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone, on his squad. He pointed out that the fixture schedule, and subsequent lack of time to fine-tune on the training pitch, may have laid part of the ground for the chaos that unfolded here.
“When you don’t work on tactical aspects you are going to lose something; we lost a lot I think,” he said. The neutral gained the wildest of mid-season rides.