To the surprise of both their supporters and neutrals, Tottenham’s 2018-19 Champions League campaign ended on the grandest stage of them all.
In last season’s Champions League, Tottenham should have made it to the quarter-finals.
After fighting back from 2-0 down after ten minutes in Turin to draw 2-2, they were leading Juventus at Wembley 1-0 in the return fixture.
They went into the sheds dominant. They were off to the next round and the Mauricio Pochettino-led revolution had claimed perhaps its biggest scalp – before a five-minute attacking burst saw Juve score two quick goals, kicking the Spurs out of the tournament.
After the match, Juve’s Giorgio Chiellini spoke though fumbling English about his team’s belief, not just in the resilience of the Old Lady of Italian Football, but of Tottenham’s inability to take the next step.
“Tottenham. It’s the history of the Tottenham. They always created many chances and score so much, but at the end they miss always something to arrive at the end. We believe in the history,” he said.
“Experience is important and tonight we used our skill and arrived at the win.”
That one statement was not meant as a sledge. It was not an example of US-style trash talk to twist the knife into an already unsettled opponent.
It was intended by Chiellini as a compliment to his own side’s self-belief.
But for Tottenham fans, it was more painful than being forced to watch Arsenal’s 2003-04 season highlight reel on repeat. In one soundbite, the Juve captain had summed up not only Tottenham’s history, but the very real gap between Europe’s elite and the rest, whether it be the new money of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City, or the astute signings and talent development of Tottenham.
Their 2-1 loss to Watford at Vicarage Road may have been on a lesser stage, but it was a familiar capitulation from a side who are torn between the disappointments of the past and the expectations of the future.
Just a week after their 3-0 thrashing of Manchester United, Tottenham had lost sight of the present. Maybe they were thinking about their tough Champions League draw or their next-up fixture, against Liverpool, but they certainly weren’t thinking of Watford.
Pochettino was scathing in his post-match assessment, saying that the side had switched off and played with “friendly intensity”, a contradiction in terms which describes Tottenham past, present and future.
Pochettino’s Spurs, like fellow Premier League upstarts Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp, have played some of Europe’s most exciting football in recent years, despite their comparatively limited budgets. But despite three top-four finishes in a row for Spurs – and a Champions League, Europa League and League Cup final for Liverpool – each have little to show for their improvement other than recalcitrant optimism.
The match might be a blip in a long, punishing season – and Watford’s flawless record this season indicates that they are no pushovers – however Spurs need to focus on the present if they are to capitalise on their best chances of success in a generation.
On the continent…
Ronaldo who? After ten goals in three appearances, Real Madrid sit on top of the ladder, seemingly mocking pre-season suggestions that goals might be hard to come by now that he has moved to Juventus.
Sterner tests will come for the European champions, but there are no signs that Real are missing Cristiano Ronaldo’s 40-plus goals per season just yet.
After blitzing Red Bull Leipzig in the opening round, it appeared Dortmund’s failure to sign a striker – while letting three go in the past six months – wasn’t going to hurt them. Their draw with Hanover however saw them toothless in front of goal, so their last-minute bringing in of Barca man Paco Alcácer on loan has happened just in time.
Napoli’s loss at Sampdoria was a surprise – and it might have come due to one of the most absurd goals ever seen – but it has put them behind the pace already after just three rounds.
Juve sit alone on the top of the table, despite Ronaldo still failing to find the back of the net.