LONDON -- What if Jose Mourinho were a football romantic after all?
The Tottenham manager used his programme notes prior to his side's 2-1 win over Middlesbrough in an FA Cup third-round replay to write about how he watched on television as a spellbound teenager when Ricky Villa's famous solo goal inspired Spurs to victory over Coventry City in the 1981 final.
Along with Ossie Ardiles, Villa was one of two Argentinian midfielders in the Tottenham team at Wembley that day, and for the club's first game in the competition at their new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium home, Mourinho ensured that the land of Maradona and Messi was suitably represented in the hosts' starting XI. Giovani Lo Celso and Erik Lamela started together for the first time in Mourinho's tenure, scored the first-half goals that earned Spurs a fourth-round trip to Southampton and in so doing showed that there might yet be life without Harry Kane.
In Kane's absence, with a hamstring injury that is expected to keep him out until April at the earliest, the most prolific Spurs goal scorer involved in Tuesday's match was Robbie Keane, Middlesbrough's assistant manager. Seated alongside visiting manager Jonathan Woodgate, another Spurs old boy, Keane could only watch as Lo Celso and Lamela left his current employers chasing the game after 15 minutes.
Lo Celso accepted a gift from Tomas Mejias in the second minute, seizing upon the Boro goalkeeper's misplaced pass and cutting inside Dael Fry before rolling in his first goal since the first week of November. Lamela, making his first start for Mourinho after a hamstring injury, added a second, robbing Jonny Howson, powering into the box in trademark, straight-backed fashion and deftly flicking the ball past Mejias with the outside of his left foot.
Kane's unavailability has most obviously robbed Mourinho of a goal scorer, but without the England striker to drop deep and link the play, there is a creativity deficit to be addressed as well, not least while Christian Eriksen's well-publicised desire to leave continues to sap him of motivation. Lamela and Lo Celso had enlivened Spurs' play following their introductions from the bench in Saturday's narrow 1-0 loss to runaway Premier League leaders Liverpool, and against Boro they proved just as impactful from the start after benefiting from Mourinho's decision to rest Dele Alli and Son Heung-min.
Aligned alongside Eriksen in a 4-2-3-1 formation that featured Lucas Moura at its tip, Spurs' Argentinian pair helped facilitate the slick one-twos that had Boro's defenders valiantly defending the edge of their own box for much of the first half. From Lamela's pass, Ryan Sessegnon saw a low shot touched behind by Mejias. From Lo Celso's intelligently weighted layoff, 20-year-old right-back Japhet Tanganga came within inches of his first Tottenham goal. Their combined tally of five key passes was one fewer than the total mustered by the rest of the team.
"They played very well. Ardiles and Villa wouldn't be ashamed of them tonight, for sure," Mourinho said when it was put to him that Lamela and Lo Celso performed in a manner reminiscent of their illustrious compatriots. "I'm happy to say I agree with you. Lamela was out for so long. He was coming step by step: 10 minutes one game, 20, half an hour [against] Liverpool, 90 minutes today. I took him to the limit, but he's coming. Gio again, step by step. So, so good against Liverpool and again so, so good today, adapting to the reality of English football and its intensity."
Spurs have enjoyed precious few straightforward afternoons in Mourinho's nascent tenure, however, and there was a sense of deja vu about the manner in which the hosts' defensive vulnerability offered Boro a route back into the contest. Davinson Sanchez endured a particularly uncomfortable evening beneath the north London drizzle, repeatedly missing headers and misjudging passes. It was the Colombian centre-back's mistimed header that allowed substitute George Saville to inject an element of tension into proceedings by rolling a rather tame shot into Paulo Gazzaniga's bottom-right corner with seven minutes remaining.
Tottenham have conceded 21 goals and kept only one clean sheet in the 14 games since Mourinho succeeded Mauricio Pochettino in the dugout. Such fragility contributed to Spurs' going four games without victory in all competitions prior to Boro's visit, and if Mourinho is to resurrect their push for a Champions League place in the league, it is a matter that will have to be addressed urgently. Inconsistency and defensive flakiness are unlikely to prove a recipe for success in the Champions League either, where RB Leipzig await in the round of 16, but for now, it has not been an impediment to progress in the FA Cup.
As Pochettino's trophy-less tenure demonstrated, an Argentinian connection is no automatic guarantee of FA Cup glory for Spurs. But it is a tradition that Mourinho would dearly love to resurrect.