IAN KINGTON / AFP / Getty
If Tottenham’s game plan was to simply prevent Juventus from getting a shot on target, then manager Mauricio Pochettino was likely ecstatic with how the first hour of Wednesday’s Champions League knockout match unfolded.
What followed in the second half, however, will keep the Argentine up for days and weeks to come.
Similar to its north London neighbour, Tottenham’s Champions League journey ended in the round of 16 – a phase in which Arsenal’s European dreams expired for seven consecutive years before the club failed to qualify this season – after quick-fire goals from Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala propelled Juventus into the next round.
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But, unlike those Arsenal teams – whose hopes of advancing were often erased following first-leg encounters against powerhouses like Bayern Munich and Barcelona – this year’s quarter-finals were in Tottenham’s sights after a promising first leg in which the English side scored two valuable away goals during a 2-2 draw.
That result inspired talk that Spurs were coming of age, as did the first half of the second leg at Wembley Stadium when Tottenham dominated Juventus, a side that’s competed in the Champions League final in two of the last three years.
Tottenham’s excellent first-half performance was rewarded just before halftime when Heung-min Son’s scuffed shot floated into the back of Juve’s net.
And it wasn’t just that go-ahead goal that made it seem as if the Italian club was on its way out of the tournament, as Spurs had outclassed the visitors on multiple levels in the opening half:
However, Tottemham’s early success was followed by a disastrous three-minute spell in the second frame that won’t soon be forgotten by players, coaches, and supporters.
Juventus eventually broke free of Tottenham’s grip on the match after manager Massimiliano Allegri abandoned his back-three formation in favour of a traditional back-four scheme.
Needing two goals to advance, there was initially some confusion regarding Allegri’s decision to adapt to Tottenham’s relentless attack by removing Blaise Matuidi – arguably one of Juve’s best midfielders – for left-back Kwadwo Asamoah in the 60th minute, before replacing Medhi Benatia with another defender, Stephan Lichtsteiner, a minute later.
But while observers were scratching their heads in bewilderment, the gamble paid dividends almost immediately.
The new-look visitors stormed back into the encounter as Higuain scored from close range while Tottenham was caught ball-watching. Juventus then turned the tie on its head as Dybala capped off an unchallenged 20-yard run with an impeccable finish that goalkeeper Hugo Lloris could only watch helplessly. In less than three minutes, Spurs had found themselves on the ropes.
And while Allegri’s tactical change had shifted momentum, it was also perfectly suited to defend as Tottenham desperately attempted to even the match.
Still, the mission was far from complete in the 23 minutes plus stoppage time that followed Dybala’s superb strike. Pochettino introduced a pair of attack-minded players, Erik Lamela and Fernando Llorente, in an attempt to force extra time.
In fact, the hosts were inches from grabbing that valuable equaliser, but a pair of veteran Juventus defenders saved the day. When the dust finally settled, a vital interception from Giorgio Chiellini and a goal-line clearance from Andrea Barzagli had ensured the visiting supporters were singing songs of joy at England’s national stadium, dashing Tottenham’s European dreams in the process.