Wednesday 19 December 2018

Pochettino's progress runs into defensive wall

Heung-Min Son Photo: John Walton/PA Wire
Heung-Min Son Photo: John Walton/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino has come a long way since succeeding Nigel Adkins at Southampton - a change considered brutal and baffling at the time. Now we look back on it as a smart acquisition that put the Tottenham boss on the path to being European coaching royalty. That journey faltered with defeat against Juventus.

There will be other chances, assuming Pochettino stays for the long haul. For now, though, the old guard have stopped his ascent. Spurs now return to domestic concerns after appearing to be among this season's strongest teams in Champions League action. Harry Kane tried to keep that theory alive with an 89th minute header that struck a post and was then cleared off the line.

It was a febrile end to a campaign which gave Tottenham's fans a taste of thrilling big European nights can be. Again and again Spurs pressed the Juventus defence in a hunt for the goal that would take them in extra-time. But Italy's team, dressed like Sweden, somehow clung on. Their rejoicing showed what tough adversaries Spurs had been.

Below Manchester City in the Premier League, Liverpool and Spurs are the teams exciting English crowds. Jurgen Klopp, at Anfield, already had a Champions League pedigree from Borussia Dortmund, but Pochettino is still establishing his.

In only his eighth game as a coach in this competition, he faced an opponent, Massimiliano Allegri, who was sending out his 75th team at this level. But Pochettino had already left his mark on Zinedine Zidane, with victory over Real Madrid in this stadium, and was not about to defer to Allegri, wagging his finger at his counterpart in a touchline spat shortly before Gonzalo Higuain equalised - and before Paulo Dybala put Juve in front, two minutes and 49 seconds later.

Real Madrid and PSG could both be looking for a new manager this summer - and Pochettino would fit the bill for both jobs, despite his defence falling apart in the first nine minutes in Turin, and for Dybala's goal here at Wembley. Despite all their fine attacking play, Spurs were up against hardened European opponents who have faced much sterner tests than this, in the nine finals the club have reached.

There was a reason, though, Pochettino spoke of the "respect" now shown to Spurs by the usual suspects of Europe's late knockout rounds. Their performances against Real Madrid - and their rousing comeback from 2-0 down in nine minutes in Turin - served notice on the old elite that a new player was in town. "They respect the philosophy we build and the football we play," Pochettino said. "We feel we have respect for the brand of football we show, they respect us in Europe."

Juventus were slow to recognise this development. In Turin, in the first leg of this tie - they relaxed on their early lead, perhaps assuming the job was done. Who comes back from 2-0 down in Juve's ground? Spurs did, with goals from Harry Kane, and Christian Eriksen, and brave, assured forward play. That fightback was a measure of the confidence and maturity of this Tottenham side, who have been superb this season against Liverpool, Manchester United and in large measure against two European heavyweights.

This game was different to Turin. Spurs tried to dominate it from the start. They are now incapable of being discouraged by the fame or the name of the opposition. Kane is a relentless scorer. Moussa Dembele is among the best of his type in Europe. Eriksen's creativity can be relied on every week. Heung-Min Son, who put them in front in the first half one minute after a bad miss, is capable of tormenting full-backs, as he did Andrea Barzagli.

Offence And if 'lucky generals' exist, Pochettino's team escaped justice early in the game when Jan Vertonghen slid into Douglas Costa in the Tottenham penalty box and brought him down after the ball had gone. Inexplicably, the referee, Szymon Marciniak, and his assistant saw no offence.

Spurs have become regular title candidates, and their success has opened Europe up as an even bigger stage for Pochettino to display his talents.

Juventus reached two of the last three Champions League finals. Spurs were in the last 16 for only the second time. At this level, knockout ties can be flint walls upwardly mobile teams crash into.

Juventus were not Basel or Porto. In the second half the visitors returned to the form of those first nine minutes in Turin, striking Tottenham twice in less than three minutes.

They proved their pedigree. Spurs are still building theirs.

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