GHENT, Belgium -- Three conclusions from Tottenham's 1-0 defeat at KAA Gent on Thursday in the first leg of the Europa League round of 32.
1. Spurs players not up for the cup
If Tottenham want to win the Europa League -- and their manager and captain are adamant that they do -- this was not the way to show it. Spurs' hopes of winning a first trophy since 2008 were dealt a significant blow with a 1-0 defeat to Belgian minnows KAA Gent, the lowlight of a dismal season in Europe.
Some Spurs fans didn't arrive in the stadium until 20 minutes after kickoff after a nightmare journey from the city centre to the Ghelamco Arena. Local buses turfed them out around two kilometres away, in a backlog of rush-hour traffic, and the stewards struggled to process the late arrivals. If the fans had stayed in Ghent's historic centre, they wouldn't have missed much from their team, who were abject and disinterested for 90 minutes.
Before the game, Mauricio Pochettino said his players wanted the opportunity to make amends for their 2-0 defeat at Liverpool, and he made just two changes, with Moussa Sissoko and Harry Winks replacing Christian Eriksen and Son Heung-min. The manager rejected suggestions that the result at Anfield and Chelsea's charge to the league title has given extra significance to the cup competitions, but his message was clear: Win the tie in the first leg.
If Pochettino is up for the cup, his players were not, however. Gent were more energetic and more enterprising in the opening twenty minutes, with only Winks showing quality and composure.
Spurs had started in a 4-3-3 system, with Winks, Mousa Dembele and Victor Wanyama in midfield and Moussa Sissoko and Dele Alli supporting Harry Kane. If Pochettino was using a lesser competition as a chance to experiment, he had quickly seen enough, reverting back to 4-2-3-1 after 25 minutes, with Dembele as the No.10; Spurs were marginally better. Neither keeper was tested by half-time with Alli's daisy-cutter the best chance.
At half-time, Pochettino changed it again, switching to a three-at-the-back system. Tactical flexibility or a shoddy plan A? Either way, nothing illustrated Tottenham's need to strengthen the squad better than the sight of Sissoko starting the half at left wing-back. It briefly got better for Tottenham -- Kane hit the post from a Kyle Walker cross -- but then it got worse. Danijel Milicevic beat the offside trap on the left side, and had time to pick out Jeremy Perbet. Ben Davies lunged but couldn't dispossess the Frenchman who rolled the ball past Hugo Lloris at the second attempt.
Far from jumpstarting Spurs, Gent nearly added a second when the excellent Milicevic crossed dangerously again. Pochettino was proactive -- introducing Son and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou for Dembele and Sissoko -- but Spurs simply looked more disjointed and it was Gent, who threatened again, Lloris tipping Milicevic's low shot onto the post after Toby Alderweireld was caught in possession. Son had a chance blocked late on but Spurs never looked much like scoring and the final whistle was greeted by a huge roar from Gent's 20,000 home supporters. The Spurs fans were kept in their seats after full-time, contemplating a wretched display and another wretched journey ahead.
2. Tottenham's European struggles continue
This season was supposed to mark Spurs' return to the top table and the Champions League. Instead, this week has felt horribly pre-Pochettino: a dismal defeat away at one of the Premier League big boys and an uninspiring Europa League display. A week ago, Pochettino was talking about winning three competitions. In another week, the manager's focus may have been reduced solely to securing a top four finish. Tottenham need to ensure their season does not unravel completely.
At 1-0 up, the Gent fans were singing "Que sera, sera, we're going to Wembley" and that trip should hold no fear for manager Hein Vanhaezebrouck and his team. Spurs have lost two of their three games at their temporary home, beating only a disinterested CSKA Moscow team in a meaningless match, and if they play like this again, they will return to the national stadium next season with a record of one win in four games there hanging over them. Pochettino's lineup suggested he wanted to win the tie on the night and rest his stars in the second leg at Wembley. Now he cannot afford to leave out the likes of Kane and Alli for the second leg, which could have wider repercussions for the league match against Stoke on Sunday week.
There were plenty of issues for Pochettino to ponder -- the defensive organisation seems to have disappeared and Spurs were again lacking fight -- but the Argentine will surely be especially concerned about his team's lack of firepower ahead of the second leg. They have now scored one goal in four matches -- Kane's penalty kick against Middlesbrough -- and, after steamrolling opponents in January, they have reverted back to the October to November form. You wonder where the next goal is coming from. This has been a running theme in Europe especially, where Spurs have now scored six goals in seven matches, four of those against CSKA Moscow's ancient defence. They return to Wembley on Thursday; they have to score.
3. Gent impressive
The defeat is especially frustrating for Tottenham because there is a distinct lack of quality in this season's Europa League round of 32. Before kickoff, only Manchester United had shorter odds than Spurs to win the competition. Roma or Villarreal would be a test but they play each other in this round.
On this evidence though, Gent would hold their own against the majority of clubs still in the competition. They were well-organised defensively, with Anderson Esiti often dropping from midfield to form a back three, leaving Kane swarmed. In Milicevic, the 31-year-old winger, they also have a player of quality, who caused Tottenham problems for 90 minutes. The Belgians are struggling to qualify for this competition through the league but they may fancy their chances of doing well in it now.