Tottenham’s lack of Champions League know-how proves costly

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to suggest that Tottenham Hotspur were much the better team over the course of their two-legged Champions League tie with Juventus.

Despite being eliminated by a 4-3 aggregate deficit, the North London club actually controlled both matches, aside from a total period of around 40 minutes where Juventus were fantastically clinical.

Champions League knockout football is the most unforgiving club arena, any mistake is punished and in Spurs’ case, simply taking their foot off the gas saw them lose momentum and the Turin club pounced.

Gonzalo Higuain had barely had a touch in the first 60 minutes at Wembley on Wednesday evening, then within three minutes the Argentine had scored a crucial equaliser and provided a sumptuous assist for Paulo Dybala’s winning goal.

These are the margins in the Champions League, every single tie is, for the most part, so finely poised that anyone can spring back into life at any moment. Despite dominating both matches as if they were Premier League games, Mauricio Pochettino was faced with a totally different animal in Juventus and couldn’t deal with their experience and tactical nous when Massimiliano Allegri introduced Stephan Lichtsteiner

It’s an unfortunate legacy of the social media era, but a lot of the hot-takes from Wednesday were that Tottenham Hotspur were true to their history and bottled a big opportunity. This is quite simply not the case at all although Giorgio Chiellini’s post-match interview with BT Sport may well have suggested otherwise.

For us, it’s an amazing night,” he explained.

“We know the fantastic players Tottenham have; Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eriksen, they create chances every game.

“We said to ourselves to keep calm, our chances would arrive, it’s the history of Tottenham, at the end they always miss something to get over the line.”

These are damning words from a defensive stalwart that kept Kane quiet for the entirety of the second leg, both he and Gianluigi Buffon celebrated every defensive clearance as if it were a tie-winning goal and it was this mentality which made the difference on the night.

Frustration in such a situation is understandable, but Spurs supporters should be encouraged by how relaxed Pochettino seemed after the full-time whistle, he didn’t view elimination as the absolute disaster which radio phone-ins would have you believe it is. He was philosophical, he knows it takes time to get a team adjusted to Champions League football, it’s so difficult. Juventus are the perfect example.

In the first year Juventus were back in the Champions League under Antonio Conte, they reached the quarter-final and were outclassed and out-thought by Bayern Munich, the following year they ‘bottled-it’ by failing to overcome Galatasaray in a blizzard-stricken Istanbul and were eliminated at the group stage.

You can see why the phrase ‘bottling it’ is now so inappropriate in this situation, bottling is the Buffalo Bills reaching four successive Superbowls in the 1990’s and losing every single one. The Champions League dictates that a period of acclimatisation is necessary, the year after their Turkish nightmare Juventus would go on to reach the final in Berlin.

The style of football is already in place for Spurs, they showed this over both matches against the Italian champions, now their task is keeping the squad together and learning from this difficult experience.

Just how Spurs were eliminated made a change for English clubs, there was no grand failure or defensive horror show. There is a clear sign that English clubs are improving in Europe and aren’t far away from having their first winner of the tournament since Chelsea back in 2012.

Steven Gerrard spoke after the match about how small details make the difference in knockout ties, and he was absolute spot on. Defensively Tottenham were very solid, but a Davinson Sanchez mistake for Dybala’s goal was punished severely.

Daniel Levy now faces a difficult summer, Paris-Saint Germain will be on the lookout for a new coach, Real Madrid may well be in the market for both a top coach and a world-class goal-scorer, both of which the North London possess at this time.

There is also the small matter of domestic pressure, Tottenham are facing yet another trophyless season, and whilst the former Espanyol coach has shown a real lack of interest in both the FA and Carabao Cups, with Manchester City eliminated there is a great chance for Spurs to finally get over the line and lift a trophy.

Spurs fans can look back on their continental campaign with a lot of pride, they topped a group containing both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, and in the end it was a lack of experience rather than a lack of quality that cost them.

They will likely be back next year and will continue on their journey to getting comfortable with top level European competition, it doesn’t happen overnight.

 

Written by Chris Winterburn

Follow Chris on Twitter @cmwinterburn

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