Tottenham’s pain masks the progress made this season
Last 16 exit to Juve no disgrace after wins over likes of Real Madrid and Dortmund
Tottenham Hotspur’s South Korean striker Son Heung-Min reacts to their defeat on the pitch after the Champions League defeat to Juventus at Wembley. Photograph: Ian Kington/AFP/Getty
The pain was still etched on the face of Son Heung-min and when he stopped to speak, he poured it all out.
“Disappointed, sad, everything,” said the Tottenham forward.
“After the game the dressing room was quieter than normal, but it’s football. It’s about winning and losing. It’s a bad feeling when you play better than them and lose. This hurt me a lot. I can’t sleep tonight.”
Moments earlier, England striker Harry Kane had marched through the Wembley mixed zone without breaking stride, shaking his head when asked by journalists for a chat. The striker always stops. Not this time. Kane was clearly frustrated.
Son attempted to make sense of what had just happened but he struggled. His goal had given Spurs a 1-0 half-time lead against Juventus in the Champions League last-16 second leg for a 3-2 aggregate advantage and when the stadium clock got to 60 minutes, there was almost a serenity about how the team were going about their business.
They were strolling it. They had stretched Juve during an imposing first-half performance only to fail to score more. Son was one of the culprits, even if he was also their star man.
But the main thing was that Juventus still needed to score two. They had been denied a clear penalty when Jan Vertonghen caught Douglas Costa on 17 minutes but, that apart, they did not look threatening.
Then, everything changed. Tottenham’s sense of security was replaced by anxiety and disbelief, and – following the goals from Gonzalo Higuaín and Paulo Dybala after 64 and 67 minutes – it was easy to feel the deflation among the Spurs support.
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Although they kept going and Kane hit the inside of a post in stoppage time, it was as if they knew how this was going to play out. On one level, it was another story of gallant failure; of nearly-but-not-quite Tottenham.
Son was spiky. He had been the victim of a double-stamp by Andrea Barzagli which went unpunished, and it was pretty obvious what he thought about it.
“Sometimes there can be accidents,” he said. “It’s the referee’s decision. What can I say? Did I think it was an accident? I don’t know. It went too quick for me.”
Son turned one question back on his interrogator, which was unusual.
“I don’t think experience was the difference,” he said. “Do you think they played better than us?”
The notion that it had been a triumph of Juve’s superior know-how was unavoidable. This is a club that has won six consecutive Serie A titles. They also know the route to the Champions League final, having reached two of the past three. Max Allegri’s starting line-up featured three World Cup winners – Gianluigi Buffon, Barzagli and Sami Khedira.
Juventus did not play well but they found a way to win – just as they had done on Saturday at Lazio, when Dybala’s 93rd-minute winner was their only shot on target.
When success is part of a club’s make-up, they know how to focus for 90-plus minutes; how to wait; how to find the opponents’ pressure point and how to press down on it. Allegri also has to take credit for the introductions of Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, together with a formation switch, which made the difference.
In the black-and-white world of modern football, the praise for Juve meant condemnation for Tottenham. Where the Italian side were streetwise, the London club were naive; they lacked the required ruthlessness at both ends of the field. To press the argument to nerve-touching levels, Spurs had bottled it.
Giorgio Chiellini’s comments served to fan those flames.
“It’s the history of Tottenham,” the Juve defender said. “They always create many chances and score so much but in the end they miss always something to arrive at the end. They’re on the verge of being able to win this type of game. Sometimes you need that spark, maybe a trophy win.”
Juventus were in the position to talk themselves up, to reflect upon how their plan had come together but just because they were mentally strong does not mean that Tottenham were weak. The two variables are not linked.
Tottenham did not freeze. They played with their usual panache, their well-calibrated pressing and, yes, a few wobbles at the back. They carried the fight and did not die wondering. They came up short.
Juventus’s frenzied celebrations also betrayed a degree of relief. They knew they had been in a game and the challenge for Spurs is to compartmentalise the devastation. The Champions League group phase exit last season was a disaster. This time they have beaten both Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and taken Juventus to the limit.