Friday 16 November 2018

Europe alive to quality of Eriksen after Turin masterclass

Christian Eriksen scores the equaliser for Tottenham in their 2-2 draw against Juventus in Turin Photo: REUTERS/Max Rossi
Christian Eriksen scores the equaliser for Tottenham in their 2-2 draw against Juventus in Turin Photo: REUTERS/Max Rossi

Jonathan Liew

The first-night reviews were spectacular. "Marvellous," cooed 'Tuttosport'. "A sober, clinical champion," was the verdict of 'La Repubblica'. 'La Gazzetta dello Sport', meanwhile, described him as "a total footballer".

Ultimately, all this will be a footnote to whatever happens at Wembley in three weeks' time. But perhaps, quietly, this was the night that Italy fell in love with Christian Eriksen. Partly, of course, you could put this down to a sense of shock. Juventus had not thrown away a two-goal lead since moving to their new stadium seven years ago.

In drawing level either side of half-time, Tottenham scored more goals against them in 36 minutes than all their opponents had managed together over the last three months.

But far more striking than the fact of Tottenham's 2-2 draw at the Juventus Stadium on Tuesday night was the manner in which it occurred. Tottenham made twice as many passes as Juventus, had twice as much of the ball, created more chances, got more shots away.

It was a rude awakening for a club that despite its mixed start to the current season, still enjoys an expectation of dominance that verges on entitlement. Simply put, Juventus are not used to being bullied like this.

Perhaps, however, there was another factor at work here. Eriksen turned 26 overnight, an age which paradoxically feels both surprisingly high and surprisingly low. He is one of those eternally youthful, eternally exuberant players who nonetheless feels like he has been around forever. And for those of us immured in the Premier League's operatic, centrifugal, self-regarding universe, it is easy to overstate Eriksen's impact on the elite.

This was his 31st match in the Champions League. It is eight years to the week since he played his first, for Ajax. Remarkably, though, it was the first time he had ever graced the knockout stages of the competition.

He has never penetrated the later stages of an international tournament; indeed, until last year, his Denmark side had not even qualified for one since he was 20. He has never won a domestic trophy outside Holland.

Peripheral

And so in a weird way, it was possible to see the Juventus game as his coming-out party, his debutant's ball, his first night out in high society.

The early auguries, it has to be said, were not good. As Tottenham shed two early goals, Eriksen cut a peripheral figure: marooned on the right wing, a playmaker with no play to make. Indeed, you could trace Tottenham's troubles to the fact that they were not getting Eriksen on the ball enough, a problem Mauricio Pochettino quickly remedied by moving Erik Lamela out to the right and bringing Eriksen deeper, in his favourite role as the No 8 in an attacking 4-3-3.

And all of a sudden, 40 yards from goal, with the game spread out before him like a map, Eriksen was in his element. He completed more passes than the entire Juventus midfield combined. He produced a sumptuous ball to provide an early chance to Harry Kane, played a role in the build-up to Kane's first goal, sprayed passes, slipped passes, slid passes.

His 90 per cent success rate, giving the area of the pitch in which he was operating, and the difficulty level of some of the passes he was attempting, is the sort of statistic you need to look at several times to truly appreciate.

Then, with 20 minutes remaining, Eriksen stood over a free-kick. The wall lined up in front of the right half of the goal; Gigi Buffon stationed himself on the left.

At Wembley on Saturday, Petr Cech of Arsenal had positioned himself similarly. Eriksen had gone over the wall, and Cech had saved. He was not going to make the same mistake twice. "I saw that to go over the wall would be very difficult," he said. "When I went up to the ball, the whole wall moved, and fortunately he did as well."

That capacity for learning, for development, for growth, was also the quality that Mauricio Pochettino picked out when asked to discuss Eriksen's performance.

"Amazing game," he gushed. "He was outstanding. But Christian, in my three years nine months, has always been important for us. Always stepping up, growing up. He represents our philosophy. He is a player who links the team. The team was great. But he was fantastic."

The next few years - the 26-30 period - should theoretically be Eriksen's peak years. If he continues to develop at this rate - and no guarantees on that score, of course, but if - then he is capable of doing it all. It bears repeating: this was his first ever Champions League knockout game. And that was how he played it.

Which is why, for all Eriksen has already achieved, this almost felt like a new beginning, for a player you suspect may only be scratching the surface of his full potential.

Independent News Service

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