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Spurs Champions League exit shouldn’t hide their progress

North Londoners have dazzled in Europe this season

Richard Cann

Inevitably there were many who described Tottenham’s Champions League exit to Juventus as so typically ‘Spursy’, referring to the club’s unerring history of collapse from positions of real promise when the chips are down. To some degree it is hard to disagree with them. Aside from the first ten minutes of the away leg in Turin and a four minute spell in which Juve overturned a one goal deficit with two quick strikes from Gonzalo Higuain and Paolo Dybala, Mauricio Pochettino’s team dominated this tie. To exit like that after outplaying a side who have won the last six Serie A titles will have been painful in the extreme, a psychological blow which will take some time to recover from. The Argentine stated that he was ‘proud’ of his team post-match, and so he should be, but also lamented missed chances in both legs which were at least as decisive as that brief loss of concentration at Wembley. Perhaps, then, this was a night that was entirely ‘Spursy’, but it also felt like a necessary lesson as Tottenham try to elevate themselves into the European elite.

In his pre-match press conference, Pochettino identified that his side would be playing one of the best opponents in Europe, but also that “we are a brave team, very positive people that love the challenge. We are going to compete, and at the same time try to enjoy it, because it’s a game to enjoy.” Given the way the two legs unfolded it is impossible to argue that his prediction did not come to pass and at Wembley Spurs tore into Juventus. With the front four of Harry Kane, Song Heung-Min, Deli Alli and Christian Eriksen excelling, they took a deserved lead into half time, courtesy of the exceptional Korean’s scuffed finish. It could and should have been more, although Allegri’s team were denied what looked like a fully warranted penalty kick for Jan Vertonghen’s blatant trip of Douglas Costa. In the second period all seemed to be under control until the Italian coach made a couple of key substitutions, bringing on two full backs and switching from three to four at the back, with a packed four man midfield and Dybala and Higuain leading the line. The response was almost instant, the tie was turned and with Spurs unable to respond all was lost.

This will feel like a painful defeat for Tottenham fans, a missed opportunity in a campaign that has promised so much. It was in many ways entirely ‘Spursy’, but the term implies a hapless collapse when this was everything but. Both Pochettino and his players, in only their second Champions League campaign together, are still learning at this level, still conscious of the pressure under which they are playing and the exceptional ability of their opponents. Juve, on the other hand, are vastly experienced, habitual winners, finalists in this competition last year and packed with players who have won major titles at club level. It is that modicum of experience and the composure it brings that ultimately turned the tie. At a goal down with half an hour to go and two away goals counting against them a place in the quarter finals appeared to be slipping away, but there was no panic, no loss of composure or drop in belief. In contrast, when Allegri made his changes and Higuain promptly scored, Pochettino failed to react and his players momentarily froze. That brief loss of focus was all Juventus needed and the damage was done. Big game nous won the day, but the tie and this Champions League campaign should not be in vain.

It is easy to forget just how far Tottenham have come under the Argentine, from a flaky upper-mid-table side to what is likely to be three consecutive top-four finishes, all whilst focusing on the development of young talents and the creation of a side that often plays exciting, exceptional football. That he has done so on a budget far smaller than those of his club’s top-six rivals, further limited as the club funds and builds its new stadium, is to be commended. This season has only brought further progress. After a disastrous 16/17 European campaign, both in the Champions League and Europa League, results and performances this season have marked a huge step forward. Belief in the players at that level is clearly growing and Pochettino is learning to deal with the tactical and practical demands of challenging on several fronts and in competitions which ask very different questions of managers and players.

The club have had the odd glorious night in European competition in recent times, but not for many years have they put together a continental campaign of sustained excellence like this. There is little ‘Spursy’ about destroying the defending champions Real Madrid, Ronaldo and all, at Wembley and earning a creditable draw is the reverse fixture, or home and away victories over Borussia Dortmund. Or, indeed, completely outplaying an experienced Juventus over two legs. This has undeniably been a significant step forward. Defeat will have hurt, particularly given the manner in which it came to pass, but on reflection it should simply be regarded as part of a necessary learning experience, one in the bank as they aim to progress even further in their new stadium next season.

Of course, nights like this are only of value if that lesson is absorbed and acted upon. For all of the obstacles that make it harder to compete against the giants of the English and European game, Pochettino and Tottenham ultimately need to take the next step and actually win a trophy. The manager has previously identified the FA Cup as a secondary competition, and his ambition to win big is admirable, but it feels as if this team need to learn to win in any way they can to provide the confidence and self-belief required in even more demanding campaigns. Through to the quarter finals, with Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool all already out and a winnable tie at Swansea to come, there is a real chance to take that step in May.

Regardless, one key question is whether Pochettino believes he can progress further with Spurs or, as one of the most in demand young coaches in Europe, if it may be necessary to move to a club with greater resources, on the pitch and in the bank, to take the next step in his evolution. His words have previously hinted at a man happy with where he is right now and not looking elsewhere, particularly with a move into the stunning new White Hart Lane Stadium imminent, but some opportunities rarely come around and he could be forgiven for being tempted. That would be a shame, just as it would if one of the club’s key players (particularly Harry Kane) decided in the summer that they could not fulfil their potential or earn what they are worth at Tottenham.

However, if they do stay, and were I a betting man that would be my hunch, then the Juventus defeat should serve as a valuable lesson, a necessary step in Tottenham’s and Pochettino’s development and one which should stand them in good stead next season. Ultimately experience won the day at Wembley. The Italians have in it bundles, the Londoners do not, or did not, for they must learn from this. Many described it as ‘Spursy’, and perhaps it was in the way the game panned out, but this felt different, less incompetent and comedic. Past collapses have channeled the memory of Benny Hill. Last night Tottenham were simply beaten by their own inexperience and the intelligence and composure of their opponents. They owe it to themselves and to their fans to not make the same mistake again.

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