So much was expected of Tottenham this year.
After their second place finish there were many tipping Spurs to make the all-important jump to glory this year. Of course, domestically Manchester City had completely written every other team in the country out the title equation by November, but Spurs still had opportunities.
The FA Cup presented, and still does present, the most likely chance of silverware. Many though harboured a sneaking suspicion that Spurs might do something a little bit special in the Champions League.
That dark horse feeling was built considerably upon Spurs’ serene ascension through the ‘Group of Death’, including that 3-1 win over Real Madrid (had you heard about that? It’s not something they like to mention too much).
And after Tottenham’s superb first leg performance against last year’s beaten finalists, coming from 2 goals down to draw away to Juventus, it looked for all the world like Pochettino’s men would at least be heading into the quarter finals.
It was hard not to be impressed with the progress that Spurs were making.
For so long epitomised by the Sir Alex Ferguson pre-match team talk which consisted solely of the immortal words ‘Lads, it’s Tottenham’, the club was appeared to be making real strides.
Having failed to make it out of the group in last year’s Champions League, they looked set to make it into at least the last 8. Whilst alongside their European form, a spectacular run of domestic form had seen the side jump from as low as 6th, right back into the mix for 2nd.
And one of the most impressive aspects of Tottenham’s growth was that they were doing it largely without two of their most influential and important players over the past 5 years: Kyle Walker and Danny Rose.
Marauding forward and helping to sustain almost unholy levels of attacking pressure on the opposition, Rose and Walker’s energy and dynamism had become almost the defining feature of Pochettino’s side. In many ways though, that recognition of excellence was what brought the whole shebang to a grinding halt.
Walker decided he wanted to make the jump up to a truly elite side, improving his chances of winning silverware and considering Tottenham’s frugality when it comes to contracts, squaring his weekly wage. A move to Manchester City materialised sharpish.
As for Rose, a hugely controversial interview he undertook at the start of season, in which he criticised Tottenham’s transfer policy and wage structure, led not only to a fine of two weeks wages, and a dressing room revolt, but also to Rose becoming a total non-factor in Spurs’ season (injury has also played a significant part).
Unable to count on two of his most reliable and impressive players, Pochettino was faced with a conundrum.
Kieran Trippier had proven towards the back end of last season that he had some serious quality, racking up the same number of League assists as Kyle Walker in a faction of the games. Meanwhile Ben Davies had proven himself to be a solid and capable defender, even if he lacked the verve and dynamism of Rose.
At left back, Davies got the nod, while at right back PSG bad boy Serge Aurier was brought in to add depth, European experience and presumably a little sense of ‘what the hell is he going to do now’ to the squad. Armed with 4 full backs, all Pochettino was left to do was to work out who his best two were, then the question would come: are they good enough?
In many ways, the European tie against Juventus has distilled these two issues into a neat and compact, 180 minutes. In the first leg Serge Aurier and Ben Davies took to the field and neither covered themselves in any remotely close to glory.
For the first goal, where Pjanic played a clever free kick through to Higuain who, without a marker volleyed the ball over his shoulder past Lloris, Davies has been given some stick. In truth though it was the team’s failure to shift across, as Davies had to mark Douglas Costa out on the left wing. So no issues there.
For Juventus’ second though, Davies just wasn’t up to speed.
Mario Mandzukic played a deep cross over from the left wing and as it dropped, Ben Davies ended up doing a full 360 pirouette in his box before sticking a leg up in the air. However, in the meantime Federico Bernardeschi had tracked the flight of the ball and came into meet it, arriving just before Davies, drawing contact and winning a penalty. Spurs were 2-0 down inside 10 minutes.
Sadly, the worst was yet to come when just before half time and with Spurs having claimed a goal back through Harry Kane, Douglas Costa set off down the left wing.
Supposed European expert Serge Aurier, unable to keep pace, lunged in with a challenge that was roughly knee height and brought Costa down for the clearest penalty I’ve seen since Jan Vertonghen’s in the second leg. Aurier’s decision was inexplicable, but it answered Pochettino’s first question: for the second leg, Aurier was out and Trippier who took the field.
Initially, Trippier’s inclusion looked like a Rubik’s cube that had slotted into place.
Bombing forward down the right hand side, the former Burnley man helped pin the Italian giant back, eventually providing the assist for Spurs’ opener and the goal that would take them through to the next round.
But then it all went a little bit Tottenham.
First, Ben Davies didn’t get close enough to stop Stephan Lichtsteiner’s cross which found a free Sami Khedira, whose header found a free Gonzalo Higuain, who scored. It should be stated that in laying blame, it was those who failed to track their runners who carry the biggest burden for Juve’s opener, rather than Davies.
The second goal though, once again proved that on the biggest stage, the Welshman just isn’t quite at the races.
As Higuain picked the ball up just inside the Spurs half, he slotted a ball through to Paulo Dybala, who may have been offside had it not been for Ben Davies sitting so deep he could have been picking fluff off the 5th officials’ top.
Likewise, having been roughly inline with the Argentine, Trippier simply gave up the chase, leaving Dybala to waltz home and put Juventus firmly in control of the tie.
A late Harry Kane header put hearts in mouths, but ultimately the damage had been done. What made it so sad was that it had been in Spurs’ hands and they had thrown it all away, just as we all know Spurs are likely to do, even if we convince ourselves otherwise (and isn’t that what hurts most of all, that we dared to dream?).
If there is something to take from the Juventus tie though it is that the two full-back questions facing Pochettino have been answered.
With Danny Rose lacking fitness and out of favour, his best option remains Davies and Trippier. But likewise, while they may help Spurs secure a top four spot for next season, when it comes to the biggest ties of all, they just aren’t good enough.
Written by Scott Pope
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