Manchester United. Newcastle United. Leicester City. West Ham United. Southampton. Crystal Palace. Arsenal. Anderlecht. Borussia Dortmund. Chelsea. Liverpool. AS Monaco. Bayer Leverkusen. Manchester City. Last Wednesday evening, this list gained a new member: Juventus.
For when Gianluigi Buffon smothered the ball in his own area and Giorgio Chiellini thumped him in the ribs triumphantly, the Italians knew the game was up. Having looked for much of a two-legged tie like they were second best, Massimiliano Allegri’s side’s second half turnaround saw them become only the fifteenth side to defeat Tottenham Hotspur since the beginning of the 2015/16 season.
The narrative that Spurs bested their Italian adversaries for 167 of the 180 minutes played is skewed somewhat. The English side was indeed in the ascendancy for all but the opening ten minutes of the first two-and-a-half hours of the tussle but once Gonzalo Higuain nabbed an unexpected equaliser at in London, the tie shifted irretrievably in Juventus’ favour.
Paulo Dybala’s strike moments later stunned much of Wembley into silence and, while the hosts pushed for an equaliser, their visitors managed proceedings in the remaining half hour perfectly. Given the looks on the faces of Buffon, Chiellini et al., one suspects they actually rather enjoyed it.
Many felt there was no shame in defeat for Spurs, and nor should there be. For all the Italian champions are aging, they are not yet so far over the hill they have forgotten the tricks of the trade. Mauricio Pochettino acknowledged as much after the game, stating that ties with clubs such as Juventus are two games in one: “one on the pitch; one outside it.”
For Pochettino and his side it represents another year of progress, albeit one measured in smaller increments than they might have hoped. Last season they did not even get out of their Champions League group; this time around, they topped it and were ousted by last June’s finalists.
A level below?
But, while positives can doubtless be found, last week’s tumble out of Europe continued a theme that has been prevalent in the past three years, over which time Pochettino has firmly made his mark at the club.
The Argentine has clearly improved Spurs, to the extent that they ended last season on 86 points. After adjusting for the fact the opening three Premier League seasons comprised 42 games apiece rather than 38, that points tally would have won them the league in all but two of the first 11 Premier League seasons.
Yet, for all their efforts, Pochettino’s side still wound up seven points behind the eventual champions, Chelsea. Antonio Conte’s men did put together one of the best seasons in English football history, but it remained that Spurs had once again fallen short.
Whilst their points total would have seen them amass several league titles during the Premier League’s first decade, 86 points has been enough to win the division on only three occasions in the last 14 years. In two of those instances, a replication of Spurs’ performance last year would have seen them lose out on goal difference. That suggests that for all their improvement, they remain below the level required of title-winners.
The one anomaly, in which 86 points would have won them the league, was Leicester City’s triumph two years ago. Claudio Ranieri’s side won the title with 81 points as all around them failed, leaving the door ajar for perhaps the biggest shock the English game has ever witnessed. The most consistent chasers of Ranieri’s men were none other than Spurs, yet a late-season collapse saw them somehow wind up third, pipped to second by Arsenal.
That year marked their biggest opportunity to win the league since their last victorious season, which now stretches back to over half a century ago. Yet, when it came to the crunch, they faltered, losing 1-0 in a crucial home game with the eventual champions. They have improved with each passing season but they risk being cast in the same light as Newcastle United were in the mid-nineties: wildly entertaining but unable to turn excitement into silverware.
A fork in the road
That comparison is perhaps a tad harsh. Pochettino is far more sound a tactician than Kevin Keegan ever was and, despite the disappointments, it is clear to see that this is a team on an upward trend. Yet they are fast approaching a critical juncture.
Harry Kane is contracted to the club until 2022 but none in the club’s hierarchy are foolish enough to believe a new deal is not required soon to ensure the services of their star striker are kept. Kane has bagged 134 goals in just over 200 appearances for Spurs and will surpass Alan Shearer’s Premier League goalscoring record if the club can keep him. Rumours continue to abound that Real Madrid wish to bring him to the Bernabeu. If he deems that he will not win trophies even after the move to the stunning new White Hart Lane takes place this summer, then it will be difficult to pin him down.
More pressingly, a trio of key contracts are set to expire next year. Whilst Toby Alderweireld has missed much of this term through injury, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele are pivotal to their side’s fortunes. They will doubtless require hefty wage increases to keep them in white and the resources needed to keep them will only increase if the club continues to fall at the biggest hurdles. The risk of a ripple effect throughout the rest of the squad cannot be understated.
A new challenge
Therein lies Pochettino’s next challenge, surely the greatest one since his arrival almost four years ago. He has firmly established Spurs as one of the most exciting sides in the league to watch, one capable of putting anyone to the sword. Yet he has not been able to eke out those wins in crucial moments, nor that skill with which all the best sides are imbued: the ability to win the big games even when playing poorly.
Save for a couple of surprising blips against lesser opposition, the teams mentioned above each overcame Spurs in important games. For Leicester’s win at White Hart Lane see Chelsea’s FA Cup semi-final victory last season. For Juventus’ win last week see Manchester United stopping an eight-game unbeaten run in its tracks earlier this term.
Pochettino has built a fantastic side, one which has bolstered its mentality too. Sunday’s 4-1 victory at Bournemouth was just the reaction that was needed following midweek disappointment. But those are the easy wins. Now Spurs must show that they are ready for the next level.
If they don’t, they risk not only being cast as the ‘nearly men’ but also the loss of a team that will go down as one of the best in recent history not to win anything.
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