LONDON (AFP) - Tottenham will take a slender 1-0 lead into the second leg of their League Cup semi-final against Sheffield United after Andros Townsend's penalty secured a barely-deserved success at White Hart Lane on Wednesday.
Mauricio Pochettino's side were largely kept in check by third tier United in a combative first leg, but they managed to secure the advantage when Townsend converted a spot-kick after Jay McEveley's handball late in the second half.
The north Londoners remain favourites to secure a Wembley final appearance against Chelsea or Liverpool, although they will need to improve on this lethargic performance to avoid becoming the latest scalp for giant-killers United in the second leg at Bramall Lane on January 28.
"It was a tough game. I am happy for the result but we need to play the second leg in Sheffield and win," Pochettino said.
"It will be a difficult game in the second leg. They played well and we need to go and be focused." It was the latest erratic effort from Spurs this season, with Pochettino setting the tone when he surprisingly named Emmanuel Adebayor as captain for his first start since November.
Togo striker Adebayor had been jeered by a section of the Tottenham support at the weekend when he made his first appearance since claiming his team played better away from home because of the pressure put on them by the Lane faithful.
After United's team coach took two and half hours to make the five-mile journey from their hotel due to the gridlocked north London traffic, kick-off had to be put back 15 minutes.
But, harassing Spurs with a ferocious work-rate and refusing to just sit back in massed defence, it was easy to see why United, FA Cup semi-finalists leat season, have once again established themselves as the scourge of top-flight opposition, knocking out West Ham, Southampton and QPR in the domestic cups this term.
Adebayor quickly grew frustrated with United's forceful approach and escaped with only a yellow card from referee Neil Swarbrick after catching Louis Reed with an arm as the Blades forward tried to deny him time on the ball.
Clough's side came close to capping their impressive start with a goal when Jamal Campbell-Ryce drifted in from the right flank to fire over a low cross-shot that flashed just past the far post.
- Stubborn resistence -
But that finally sparked a response from Tottenham and Eric Dier's header from a Townsend free-kick was goal-bound until Mark Howard plunged to his left to make the save.
Adebayor had a golden opportunity to break United's stubborn resistence when he sprinted onto Christen Eriksen's exquisite long pass, but a moment of clumsy control left the former Arsenal star stretching to get away a tame shot that looped over.
The visitors weren't cowed by that burst of Spurs pressure and Stefan Scougall rifled just wide from the edge of the penalty area after Ben Davies carelessly surrendered possession.
Dier glanced his header narrowly wide from Townsend's free-kick just before half-time but, with in-form striker Harry Kane deployed out of position on the left wing at times, there was little to warm the Tottenham fans on a freezing evening.
Kane spent slightly more time in his preferred central role in the second half but even so, Spurs were still making heavy weather of prising open the United defence.
Pochettino responded by sending on Mousa Dembele and Roberto Soldado for Ryan Mason and the anonymous Adebayor, who departed to another flurry of jeers from the home fans.
It proved an inspired move as Soldado made an immediate impact to help Spurs take the lead in the 74th minute.
Jan Vertonghen's chipped pass towards Soldado was only partially controlled by the Spanish striker, but as he tried to reach the loose ball, McEveley knocked it away with his hand.
It was a clear penalty and England winger Townsend stepped up to drive a powerful spot-kick past Howard.