Nearly Men

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium
Dom Le Roy

These days, you approach Spurs matches with anticipation, sometimes expectation, but also always with a certain nervousness. Maybe no football fan can ever approach a game with confidence, with the possible exception of followers of Celtic in the Scottish Premier and Man. City this season in our Premiership, but we are/were a team in form, developing a reputation for not being the easy touch of old. More often than not these days, though we still delight in giving our fans the odd unnecessary scare, we have been winning games, even in the Champions’ League so-called group of death. And coming back so well, as we did when conceding two early goals away to Juventus in the last-16 first leg a couple of weeks ago, made us all – manager, team, fans alike – entitled to approach Wednesday night’s return, if not with confidence, then at least with a certain optimism that was based on actual experience rather than naivety.

For the most part, it has to be said, that optimism was not misplaced – we bossed large parts of the game, made plenty of chances and, at times, had last year’s finalists defending for their lives. But, yet again, as Roy Keane so aptly put it on TV last night, if Juventus found a way to win the game, Spurs found a way to lose it. There was an eerie post-match gloom hovering over the heads of Spurs’ fans making their way out of Wembley, a silent depressed resignation, tinged, I suspect, with more than a hint of anger, because…..well, I suppose because we have been here before and wanted so badly for this night to turn out differently. And because, with a little extra here and there, it could easily have turned out differently and put us in the draw for the last eight.

So, time for the post-mortem. We started brightly, playing the ball confidently, pressing them in their half, Alli’s outrageous flicks coming off, Son frightening the life out of Barzagli on the left, Kane bullying the defenders and Dembele treating, as The Guardian later put it, his opponents as ‘rag dolls’. As ever, when you don’t score when well on top, though, you leave yourself vulnerable and, with Juventus’s first real venture into our penalty area Vertonghen’s ludicrous challenge should have resulted in a penalty, which would have changed the whole game one way or another. I only realised from a TV replay later that Vertonghen should have had a penalty later when his shirt was tugged for about 10 seconds continuously as a corner came over but let’s put the referee’s failure to spot that down to karma. Son had two good chances on the left, drawing a save from Buffon from the first and just wide with the second, while Kane was perhaps unfortunate not to repeat his rounding the keeper effort of the first leg, finding only the side netting after out-muscling the defender. No matter, because, late in the half we finally, and deservedly, got our goal, with, ironically, Son’s worst shot of the evening.

Now, we knew Juventus had to score anyway to have a chance of winning the tie, so it was important that we started the second half positively, which I felt we did for the first few minutes, pressing their defenders high up the field as before. And then, for whatever reason, we seemed to take our foot off the pedal and entered one of those phases that we tended to do regularly in our not so distant past, giving Juventus time on the ball and the sort of encouragement their performance up to then hardly warranted. I became anxious at the time and even more so when we conceded an equaliser rather cheaply. We then committed the cardinal sin of forgetting that even a 1-1 would see us through and allowing our heads to drop as if behind, literally taking our eye off the ball and allowing them a one-on-one chance just three minutes later. Now, Lloris is a great keeper, quick off his line to sweep and an athletic, reflex shot-stopper, but in these situations –certainly in more recent games (e.g. Salah’s two goals at Liverpool) his response to being faced with players clean through appears to be to dive early and dive low, allowing them to lift the ball over him, and, sadly, my lack of confidence in him as Dybala bore down on goal proved not to be misplaced.

At 2-1 down, our heads dropped even more, And, for a few minutes, I thought we might concede a third and give ourselves no chance. But then our relatively newly-acquired fighting spirit re-asserted itself and we started to play again. Juventus had already made a couple of substitutions, as much, I suspect, because they had seemed to be cleverly taking it in turns committing bookable fouls on our midfielders and forwards and didn’t want to risk a sending off as for tactical reasons, and we desperately needed some fresh legs and ideas ourselves. Lamela’s introduction sparked some life into us but, again, why oh why did Pochettino wait until only 5 minutes were left to introduce Llorente? Kane was getting little out of Chiellini in the second half and Llorente started winning balls and creating problems for them as soon as he came on. And why, when Juve were defending in depth and getting in the way of all our crosses, didn’t Moura, who has already proved himself a skilful dribbler who makes things happen, get given at least ten minutes or so?  

Even allowing for that failure, we still did well, in the face of an incredibly crowded penalty area, to fashion a couple of good late efforts, just wide, from Eriksen and Son and a header from Kane in the last minute that could easily, and would, had there been any justice, have spun over the line or been forced over by Lamela had he reacted quicker and been prepared risk life and limb and fling himself at it. When that last chance didn’t go in, we knew our number was up.

So, a disappointing night, no doubt about it. So near, yet ultimately so far. But we should not despair. I have not called this piece ‘Nearly Men’ because I think our young team members are not quite ‘men’ in football terms and that it was a case of ‘men against boys’, the mature Juve team outwitting our young ‘lads’. Indeed, with a bit more luck, as well as nous, we could have buried them; they may have defended stoutly but they also cynically took players out on a yellow card rota and rode their luck, too, not least when (again, I only saw this later on the TV highlights) Barzagli’s deliberate stamp (s) on Son’s leg did not draw the red card it deserved. No, I believe that we have improved to the extent that we are ‘nearly’ there. Compare our performances last season with this and also take heart from the fact that this season is only the second that Man. City, with all the money they have spent for God knows how many seasons now, have got beyond the last 16 in the Champions League. We are learning the demands of the competition. Keep this team together and we can improve again next season. 

As far as trophies go, we now only have the FA Cup left to play for. We know from his public utterances and his attitude re team selection and tactics that Pochettino doesn’t take this particularly seriously. I think it’s time he did. We have had a favourable draw so far, should beat Swansea if we approach the game in the right frame of mind and are capable of beating either of the two big teams left in it, Man. Utd and Chelsea. We should be capable of winning it and finishing in the top four, now that we have no other distractions, providing we keep our heads up and don’t start feeling sorry for ourselves. If we do so, it might provide the missing piece of the jigsaw, a trophy-winning mentality. Then we can stop being seen as, and seeing ourselves as, ‘nearly men.’ It may be seen as a second-class trophy now but, psychologically, for a team that has forgotten how to win it, it could prove to be a huge boost. Here’s hoping.   



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