Tottenham Hotspur were first written off after the Champions League group-stage draw. Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund? Too difficult, particularly after the way they struggled in the competition last season.
Mauricio Pochettino and his players would make a mockery of the gloomy predictions, surging into the knockout stage as the group winners.
They were written off once more three weeks ago, after nine minutes of the last-16 first leg at Juventus, as they trailed 2-0. "The team was suffering because we were nervous about conceding the third goal," Pochettino said. They almost did, only for Gonzalo Higuain to crash a 45th-minute penalty against the crossbar. It was a moment of fortune.
By then, however, Harry Kane had made it 2-1, and Spurs were once again showing the mettle that has marked their progress this season. They were full value for the eventual 2-2 draw, and, according to the captain Hugo Lloris, it has made them the slight favourites ahead of the return leg at Wembley on Wednesday night.
It is a seismic occasion for the club – only the second time they have made it so far in the Champions League after Harry Redknapp’s class of 2011 reached the quarter-finals. Pochettino’s team have been fortified by disappointment and joy. They have grown season on season and one thing is plain: they now sense opportunity.
“The first leg was another example of the attitude we have in the team,” Lloris said. “We were nearly out of the competition because if they had scored a third goal before half-time it could have been very difficult. But then we turned the tide.
“You need to live through different experiences, and it was the case last season in the Champions League [when they went out at the group stage]. We failed together but the best way is to learn very quickly. Everyone outside the club was concerned after the draw this season but we have showed our quality.
“In football and in life, when you have the chance to play a competition like this you need to take it because you never know what will happen in the next few years. It’s a great moment to show the real face of Tottenham.”
Seizing the moment was the theme of the pre-match media conference and there was no little tub-thumping. “Winning one title would be fantastic for everyone and mean a lot because if we can win some trophies along the way, it will be complete – different from other clubs,” Pochettino said. “The players would be heroes because they will have competed with these big sides. We can’t set a limit. I don’t do that. I am a dreamer. Every chance you have to play, you need to go as far as possible.”
Tottenham's improvement has been inexorable. Two years ago, after their Europa League exit against Dortmund, Pochettino said that his team could not compete with the continent's leading clubs. This season they have beaten Dortmund home and away, with a home win against Madrid the high point, the greatest confidence-booster.
“We have improved the team every season step by step,” Pochettino said. “Maybe no big step but a little step every season. You can see that the team is more mature and more competitive every season. We improved our reputation in Europe after the group stage. People started to respect Tottenham more.”
Juventus have Paulo Dybala available again after he missed the first leg through injury, and it was revealing that Pochettino mentioned the Argentinian attacker in the same breath as Lionel Messi.
The Tottenham manager also described Higuain as "one of the greatest strikers in the world" although he is a major doubt with an ankle injury. Mario Mandzukic has not travelled because of a thigh problem.
Tottenham must manage the occasion as well as the opposition, and Lloris said it would be foolish to try to dig in and protect their away goals advantage. They have to play to win.
“If we think too much about playing for a draw, especially against an experienced team like Juve, you can be in trouble,” Lloris said.
Pochettino said: “We must not think too much about the consequences of the result. We need to feel free.”
The manager talked about the special feeling of these glamour ties, the goosebumps when the Champions League anthem plays, but there will be a moment of sadness at kick-off time when a minute's silence is held to honour Davide Astori, the 31-year-old Fiorentina captain who died on Sunday.
Lloris said the Tottenham squad had been "very affected by this tragic news", while for Pochettino it brought back memories of the death of Dani Jarque in 2009 – his former captain at Espanyol.
Pochettino said: “It’s impossible to take away that pain and find an explanation. I met Davide for lunch five years ago because I wanted to sign him at Southampton and he was a great person. We share the pain with all the people in Italy.”