Mauricio Pochettino paced up and down his technical area and folded his arms tight, as if physically trying to hold the emotion within him. Behind him, Tottenham’s subs sat tight-lipped and blank-faced, as if watching the climax of a movie they weren’t enjoying very much. From the four wings of Tottenham’s brand-new stadium, that most time-honoured of noises: a howl, a plea, a shrill and agonised prayer. For something. For anything.
And at the end of it all, a goal. A goal from the left foot of Christian Eriksen, with enormous ramifications at both ends of the table. A goal with two minutes and two seconds of normal time remaining, that may well end up swinging the pendulum of history for these two clubs.
Would Tottenham be able to keep their best players without Champions League football next season? Will Brighton be able to keep theirs if they are relegated to the Championship? Upon such margins – the fractions of a second it takes a 20-yard shot to leave a man’s grass-flecked boot and bury itself in the bottom corner – are careers made and wrecked.
To Spurs, the driving seat in the race for the top four. Six points from their last three fixtures will virtually guarantee them Champions League football for a fourth consecutive season. By way of perspective, Tottenham had played a grand total of two seasons in the European Cup before Pochettino arrived at the club. After their exhausting trilogy against Manchester City, another setback here might have put their season on the skids at the most inopportune moment.
To Brighton, a fight for survival that will go right to the wire. The knowledge that they competed valiantly against a team with almost three times their revenue (£381 million to £139 million) will be of little comfort against the knowledge that Cardiff City lie just three points behind them in 18th place. Bernardo was superb at left-back. Shane Duffy and Lewis Dunk again demonstrated why they are one of the best centre-half pairings outside the Premier League’s top six. All over the pitch, they scrapped for their lives, for the point that would inch them closer to Premier League status for another season.
Certainly their manager Chris Hughton was under no illusions about how they were going to get it. “We’re going to need to be defensive,” he admitted before the game. “With the ability they’ve got, you can’t be open. We haven’t been a good enough team to play that way.”
And so the pattern of the game had pretty much established itself before a ball had been kicked. Tottenham encamped themselves deep in Brighton territory: their full-backs wingers, their centre-halves No8s, Hugo Lloris playing virtually as a deep-lying midfielder. Meanwhile Brighton sought to flail, foil, frustrate. They fouled when they had to. They wasted time when they could. Barely 10 minutes were on the clock when referee Chris Kavanagh was telling goalkeeper Mat Ryan to get on with it.
And yet for all their territorial dominance, Spurs really had very little to show for it. There were a couple of long-range hits, a fine goal-line clearance by Dunk, some intriguing half-openings. But mostly it was abortive crosses, numb noodlings around the edge of the penalty area, all garnish and no steak.
Indeed it was Brighton, on their rare forays up the field, who looked likelier to break the deadlock. Danny Rose made a monumental sliding challenge on Florin Andone, in the knowledge that only perfect timing would avert a penalty. Jurgen Locadia put a sizzling ball across the six-yard line that was just pleading for a touch. Early in the second half, Duffy put a free header straight at Lloris.
The minutes ticked away. Tottenham crept further and further up the pitch, Brighton creeping further and further back. With 18 minutes left, Toby Alderweireld rolled a shot against the inside of the post. With 16, Bernardo body-slammed Son Heung-Min, knocking the wind out of him, and very possibly his fillings and debit card Pin as well. With 11, Pochettino withdrew Lucas Moura, reached into his bag of tricks and produced – to audible gasps – Vincent Janssen, the Dutch striker for whom the phrase “out-of-favour” barely does justice to his excommunication at Spurs. It was his first game in 20 months.
With four minutes to go, Pascal Gross picked up the ball in midfield and, with no options ahead of him, simply passed it 60 yards, all the way along the ground, to Lloris so Tottenham could start again. Had the stakes not been so very real, we would have been in the midst of a curious theoretical experiment: how much beating could a team take without being beaten?
And then, as the 89th minute approached, Dele Alli made Tottenham’s 698th pass of the night, laying the ball right to Eriksen. With his 118th touch of the ball, Eriksen took a hopeful punt with his left foot from distance. Should Beram Kayal have got there quicker? Could Dale Stephens have done more to block the shot?
These are the questions that will keep Brighton’s players up at night. No sooner had the ball hit the net than they were crumpled in dismay. Dunk dropped into child’s pose. Ryan stared into space with a sort of childlike anguish, the hopeless grimace of despair.
A mild evening had given way to a chilly night. Football can be so cruel.