Before each of our home Champions League fixtures this season I take the chance to look back on a classic match from our previous endeavours in Europe’s premier competition.
In my last article I discussed Spurs’ first foray into Europe, a defeat away in Poland followed by a resounding home win, 8-1. Those were the days! Following this Tottenham were drawn for the first time (little did they know it would be the first of many encounters) with Feyenoord. In contrast to their first away tie against Gornik Zabrze, Spurs were not overawed by the unfamiliar surroundings in Rotterdam and came home with a 3-1 victory, a young Frank Saul getting two and Dyson the other. In contrast again to the previous round, there were no fireworks in the home leg, Bill Nicholson seemingly happy to get the job done, playing a slightly more defensive formation with Tony Marchi coming into the side at the expense of an inside forward, and a 1-1 draw enough to see Spurs through.
The quarter-final was another tricky Eastern European trip, this time to Prague to play Dukla. Nicholson was intent not to make the same mistakes as Poland and put out yet another defensive side. Jimmy Greaves was ineligible to play yet, having signed from AC Milan only a few months earlier and Dyson was injured and Marchi was once again in the side. The attack shorn of three talents it was blunted, though Nicholson was perhaps reasonably satisfied to come away from Czechoslovakia with just a 1-0 deficit.
Well he might be, another vociferous Spurs home crowd of 55,000 cheered the team on to a 4-1 victory and a semi-final confrontation with Benfica.
21st March 1962: Benfica 3 Tottenham Hotspur 1
By now Spurs’ debut European season was six months and six matches old, but preparations were far from ideal. In the league they were on a barren run, without a win since 10th February, their attempts to retain the title ostensibly over. The previous Wednesday they lost at home to Ipswich, followed by a hard-fought draw away to rivals Burnley. The one bright note was that Greaves was now eligible to play and almost guaranteed goals – 18 in 18 league and cup games for the club at this stage.
Their opponents in the semi-final were Benfica, themselves reigning champions but conceding too many goals to have any chance of making it a third successive title. They were renowned across Europe, though, as the great deposers of Real Madrid, the only other side to win the European Cup after 5 successive Real victories. Ironically it had been Barcelona who had knocked Real out of the semis in 1961 before losing to Benfica 3-2 in the final. Benfica were managed by the maverick Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann, who was yet to face the great Los Blancos. Yet he was utterly convinced his team could beat the ageing, fading Real, as did Nicholson who had gone to watch them play their quarter-final against Juventus. Both coaches effectively felt they were playing this tie to win the European Cup.
Once again the Spurs line-up was a defensive one, comparatively for the time, with a relatively new innovation of 4-3-3, Marchi dropping in alongside Norman at centre-half, Mackay, White and Blanchflower in midfield with Greaves, Smith and Jones up front. But Benfica were too hot to handle, Aguas and Augusto putting the home side 2-0 ahead after just 20 minutes. Smith pulled a goal back before Augusto scored his second.
This match, in front of 86,000 Portuguese fans, lived long in the memory not for the goals that were scored, but those that were disallowed. Smith and Greaves were both called offside after finding the net and both have since said they weren’t marginal decisions, they were blatantly incorrect calls. To this day the question lingers whether the Swiss referee was overawed by the occasion or bribed.
If they were genuine mistakes the Spurs were incredibly unlucky in the tie as another goal was disallowed in the return leg.
5th April 1962: Tottenham Hotspur 2 Benfica 1
In British culture there is little considered so glorious than gallant failure, and in this respect and many others this match is considered one of the most legendary in the club’s history. Technically, Spurs have not been involved in a bigger game before or since. It was the moment the great Double side had been built for and against its greatest opponents it came up agonisingly short.
Bela Guttmann, winner of numerous titles in Europe and South America, used all of his experience to his advantage. It’s said that, worried about the intense atmosphere at White Hart Lane, he kept his side in the dressing room, only running onto the field for kick-off so that they would not be overawed by the crowd, so much closer to the pitch than at the Stadium of Light.
Spurs had just won one semi-final, the previous Saturday they had beaten Manchester United 3-1 at Hillsborough to reach another FA Cup Final, could they go one better and win by the three clear goals needed?
It was an inauspicious start. Aguas added his second and Benfica’s fourth of the tie after 15 minutes and Spurs now needed three to take the game to extra-time. After Tottenham’s third disallowed goal of the tie Smith finally equalised after 38 minutes, 1-1 at half time and all to play for.
A mammoth 64,448 crowd had already created an electrifying atmosphere, and this went off the scale when Danny Blanchflower, the old dependable from the penalty spot, put Spurs in front on the night. Years later David Miller of the Daily Express called it “the most electrifying 90 minutes of European football I have seen on an English ground.” For 40 minutes Spurs threw everything at Benfica, hitting the woodwork twice, while on the break Aguas should’ve killed the game, his volley also crashing against the crossbar. In the dying moments Mackay had one final effort, but yet again it looped onto the crossbar. At the final whistle goalkeeper Carlos Perreira fell to his knees and crossed himself. Well he might.
Benfica were a great side, no doubt, and Guttmann one of the most successful coaches of the era, yet how close Spurs took them. Nicholson and Guttmann prophesised, Benfica were too strong and, despite an ageing Puskas hat-trick, the team from Lisbon came from 2-0 and 3-2 down to win 5-3.
Throughout this article I have not mentioned the name Eusebio. He’d been given his debut just weeks after the previous year’s European Cup Final and, in his first full season and still only 20, he was already proving himself an able spearhead of the Benfica attack. The semi-final was not for him, but he would have his day in the final; despite his hat-trick, Puskas knew who the real star was and handed Eusebio his shirt at the final whistle. Eusebio would continue to mature, grow even more athletic and strong, peaking at the 1966 World Cup to announce himself as a rival to Pele as the world’s greatest player.
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