If Tottenham really want to reach the Europa Conference League group stage, it might be time to call upon a top-class centre-forward. Paços de Ferreira deserved this win over a second-string Spurs selection, a first-half goal from Lucas Silva ensuring there was at least something to remember of a thoroughly tedious match. But the Portuguese side were certainly not good enough to suggest a fully firing Harry Kane would have problems putting them away if selected for next week’s second leg; continued participation in this competition might be bittersweet as parting shots go, though, and there was certainly little indication in a featureless showing that Nuno Espírito Santo would lose sleep over an early exit.
Kane’s latest absence had been well signposted and, to be fair, in normal circumstances he could never have been expected to feature here. Nuno kept his promise to rest everyone who started in the win over Manchester City but he was still able to field an accomplished-looking side with a sprinkling of youth. Nile John started in an attacking midfield role and the eye-catching inclusion was that of the 17-year-old striker Dane Scarlett. Scarlett, of whom José Mourinho is a high-profile fan, had a chance to show that one vaunted academy product might be able to soften any disappointment inflicted by another.
If Paços de Ferreira, a team with a modest history who surpassed themselves to finish fifth in the Portuguese top flight last season, needed outfoxing later on then the selection of identical twins Matthew and Michael Craig on a callow substitutes’ bench had some potential to sow confusion.
Urgency was in short supply in the opening stages, which were played amid golden evening sunshine in a compact stadium 20 miles from Porto. What quality there was came from the quick, crisp feet of Bryan Gil, the arrival from Sevilla, who looked bright and confident on his debut. Gil showed neat skill to reach the byline within three minutes and cut back for Ryan Sessegnon, who got the ball stuck under his feet in an inviting position at the near post. He worked space on several other occasions, although none to rival that level of threat.
Sessegnon, back for now from a season on loan at Hoffenheim, reacted smartly to clean up a slip from Cristian Romero as the home side showed some intention to bare their teeth. Romero, the centre-back on loan from Atalanta, did not always look comfortable when Paços de Ferreira broke and was fortunate not to send the centre-forward Denílson through after indecision later on. When Hélder Ferreira forced Pierluigi Gollini, another debutant, to save a low daisy cutter it was a sign Spurs would not compete solely on their own terms.
As half-time approached it had become a challenging watch, with Spurs unable to feed Gil and John in areas where they could give Scarlett encouragement to sniff. The sense of drift was palpable and, from nothing, Paços de Ferreira capitalised. Silva had not scored since joining from Flamengo last year but was able to run too easily off Cameron Carter-Vickers after a slide-rule through pass from Valente Santos. The referee, Maurizio Mariani, had played a smart advantage to facilitate the move; Silva strode on and beat Gollini with a confident low finish.
It was little surprise to see the peripheral John replaced by Jack Clarke, the only bench option with any experience to speak of, for the second half. Little changed initially, Spurs’ lack of intensity summarised when Harry Winks showed little vigour in preventing Denílson turning him beyond the halfway line. A couple of corners, born of a bright dash for the line by Sessegnon, caused mild alarm in the home defence but by the hour mark André Ferreira, the home goalkeeper, had yet to be troubled at all.
Romero looked prone to overcommitting and was fortunate not to be booked for crudely ploughing through Silva. At least he was showing some sort of edge: Spurs, for whom Gil had long since faded, did not look remotely like scoring.
Paços de Ferreira showed scant inclination to push for a second goal. On paper, at least, this was to be their biggest European scalp and given the lack of threat aimed their way they could be forgiven for seeing the result out. A late Vitorino Antunes free-kick was blocked but there would be no moment to rival Silva’s winner; Spurs must decide whether it is worth their while to send out the big guns, whether for a farewell turn or not, to overturn the deficit in north London.