Tottenham Hotspur closed in on a place in the UEFA Europa League knockout stages with a 2-0 win away to Moldovan champions Sheriff on Thursday.
It was a hard-earned win for Andre Villas-Boas’ side, with Sheriff applying plenty of pressure, but ultimately the Premier League team’s class shone through.
Villas-Boas made wholesale changes to the team that had beaten Aston Villa in the Premier League on Sunday, but the visitors needed just 12 minutes to open the scoring.
On their first attack, captain for the night Jan Vertonghen headed home Christian Eriksen’s cross to settle Tottenham down in the tricky tie in Transnistria, a territory that claims independence from Moldova itself.
A Sheriff side with a heavy African and Brazilian influence might have drawn level moments later, but Vlad Chiriches made a stunning last-gasp clearance to stop Luvannor Henrique from scoring after rounding Hugo Lloris.
The hosts then had a goal disallowed, but they remained very much in the contest until Jermain Defoe made sure of the win in the 75th minute with a deflected strike that saw him equal Martin Chivers’ record of 22 European goals for Spurs.
“It was a great moment. I was delighted to see it go in because I didn’t really have that many chances,” Defoe said of his landmark goal. “It was an important win and it was always going to be difficult. They’re a good side, really organized, and didn’t give us a lot of space.”
The north London club have the maximum nine points from three games in Group K and lead the section by five points from Anzhi Makhachkala, the Russians who beat Tromso IL 1-0.
Elsewhere, there was frustration for another Premier League side as Swansea City were held to a 1-1 draw by Russian side Kuban Krasnodar in south Wales.
It looked like a beautifully crafted Michu goal midway through the second half would be enough to give Michael Laudrup’s men a third win in as many games in Group A, especially as they had not conceded a goal in the section, while their opponents had not scored, but the visitors won a penalty in stoppage-time when Senegalese substitute Ibrahima Balde was brought down by goalkeeper Gerhard Tremmel. French former Liverpool forward Djibril Cisse stepped up to net the spot-kick.
“It’s massively disappointing to be honest,” Swansea captain Neil Taylor said. “We weren’t at our best. Fair play to them, they gave it everything, but that at the end is a sucker punch.”
“I think overall it’s a fair result, but of course when you’re 1-0 up in injury-time... yeah, that’s a little frustrating, but I have to say that watching the game overall a draw was a fair result,” Laudrup said.
Last season’s English League Cup winners remain a point clear at the top of the group from Valencia, who romped to a 5-1 home win against Saint Gallen 1879 of Switzerland, with Fede Cartabia scoring twice.
Like Swansea, Wigan Athletic drew at home against Russian opponents, although the FA Cup holders came from behind to hold Rubin Kazan 1-1, with Nick Powell canceling out Aleksandr Prudnikov’s opener.
Meanwhile, Serie A side ACF Fiorentina followed up their stunning weekend win against Juventus by keeping up their perfect start in Group E, Spanish winger Joaquin setting them on their way to a 3-0 victory against Romanians CS Pandurii Targu Jiu in Florence.
Eintracht Frankfurt of Germany made it three wins out of three in Group F by beating Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv 2-0 and there was a much-needed win for Olympique Lyonnais, who beat Croatian side HNK Rijeka 1-0 in Group I after a run of just one win in 12 games in all competitions.