Gylfi Sigurdsson’s close-range finish gave a below-par Tottenham a 1-1 draw at Maribor in their Europa League group match.
Robert Beric had given the Slovenian champions the lead just before half-time and it looked like a sluggish Spurs were headed for the bottom of the group.
But Sigurdsson scrambled the ball home just before the hour mark and, with leaders Lazio held to a 1-1 draw by a late Panathinaikos goal, Spurs lie third in Group J, one point behind Maribor and only two off the Italians.
With youngster Andros Townsend given a start on the left, and Sigurdsson preferred to Clint Dempsey, there was a slightly different shape about an otherwise full-strength Spurs line-up.
A fairly nondescript first half saw Spurs get a better feel for the ball as the hosts looked to spoil and counter, with one such move putting the Slovenes ahead just before the break.
Neither side had created many clear-cut opportunities, with Maribor’s Beric having the ball in the net but offside when he raced through, while Spurs midfielder Sandro shaved the outside of the post with a long-range effort as his side started to find the better attacking positions later in the half.
But, against the run of play, a wonderful solo run from Dejan Mezga saw the Croatian-born naturalised Slovene somehow wriggle into the box, where his low ball was bundled in from close range by Beric.
Not taking anything away from Mezga’s mazy slalom dribble, but Spurs were sloppy as Townsend initially gave the ball away, while Tom Huddlestone seemed half-interested in preventing the Maribor midfielder getting past.
There was a half-time change for Spurs as Townsend was replaced by young Spanish winger Iago Falque. It ultimately had an impact.
Maribor had been buoyed by their counter-attacking goal, continuing with their cagey but quick-breaking policy and creating the better chances early in the second half as Tavares fired straight at Hugo Lloris from a good position before Goran Cvijanovic blasted over after good work by Agim Ibraimi, the increasingly influential Mezga involved in both moves.
The decision to bring in the talented if under-utilised Iago reaped dividends though as Spurs finally made the keeper work, and in doing so levelled the match.
The Spaniard popped up on the left, driving in a low cross shot that was deflected towards Jasmin Handanovic, who did well to parry but only as far as Defoe. With the keeper prone, the England striker blasted towards goal only to find the back of left-back Ales Mejac on the line – but Sigurdsson was on hand to bundle home the loose ball.
With Lazio leading at Panathinaikos, Spurs would have been content if not happy with a point, while the hosts sensed an opportunity lost: as a result, both sides cagily went for the victory, making for a more engaging but not exactly raucous final half hour.
Maribor went close through Agim Ibraimi, but he fired into the side netting from a good position, while Kyle Walker and Defoe again had goal-bound efforts blocked.
There was a moment of controversy when Russian referee Sergei Karasev booked Kyle Naughton for diving when he appeared to have been tripped in the box.
Dempsey entered the play in an attacking Spurs change that complimented Maribor’s withdrawal of Mezba for a defender.
The hosts were still dangerous on the break though, as Milec and Beric almost combined brilliantly, while Spurs’ main outlet was Iago, who mimicked his cross for the goal but with no-one on hand to punish the keeper’s parry.
The closing minutes were a bit of a drag, with both sides more concerned about avoiding defeat, Jan Vertonghen’s long-range shot just wide the only real chance of note.
The final whistle – and news of Panathinakos’ late equaliser – was greeted like a victory by the home fans, the results suiting both parties ahead of the November 8 rematch at White Hart Lane.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Dejan Mezga - Maribor: Was superb for the hosts, pulling the strings in their counter attacks and creating their goal with a wonderful dribble. Recently acquired Slovenian citizenship (he is a Croat) and should get a call-up soon.
MARIBOR: J. Handanovic 6, Mejac 6, Rajcevic 7, Arghus 7, Milec 7 Mezga 7, Ibraimi 6, Cvinajovic 6, Mertelj 6, Tavarez 6, Beric 7. Subs: Filipovic N/A, Komazec N/A
TOTTENHAM: Lloris 6, Walker 6, Vertonghen 6, Caulker 6, Naughton 6, Sandro 7, Huddlestone 5, Sigurdsson 6, Lennon 6, Townsend 5, Defoe 6. Subs: Iago 7, Dempsey N/A, Livermore N/A.