Tottenham had done what it needed to progress to its first Champions League quarterfinal in seven years, but Juventus did what Juventus does best, stunned Spurs and its veteran squad is moving on.
LONDON – There is a quality certain teams have, a capacity to win games they seemingly have no right to win. Tottenham will wonder how on earth it lost, will reflect on how it dominated long portions of the game, will remember how comfortable it seemed with half an hour to play. And yet it is Juventus that progressed to the quarterfinals of the Champions League.
Tottenham had bossed the first half. It’s true it should have been whistled for a penalty, but then Andrea Barzagli probably should have been sent off. Heung-min Son had not merely scored, he was devastating Juventus on the Spurs left. At the beginning of the second half, Juve seemed to have decided its only option was to try to kick its way out of trouble. And then, on the hour mark, Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri made two substitutions. Off went Blaise Matuidi and Medhi Benatia and on came Kwadwo Asamoah and Stephan Lichtsteiner, allowing Barzagli to move away from his tormentor, Son, and slot in at center back. The impact was immediate.
First, Lichtsteiner got beyond Ben Davies. Sami Khedira then headed his cross toward the goal and Gonzalo Higuain volleyed in to pull Juventus even on aggregate but still behind because of Tottenham's two away goals. Then, Higuain’s through ball released Paulo Dybala, who had missed the first leg and hadn’t scored in the Champions League for 11 months. With Davies playing Dybala onside, the Argentine star ran on and calmly lofted his finish over Hugo Lloris. Seven minutes after the substitutions, Juve had the lead.
What it means is rather harder to say. Spurs were good, very good, across the two legs, undone by two brief spells–seven minutes in the first leg and three minutes in the second–in each of which they conceded twice. All four goals, it would be fair to say, were to some extent the result of defensive sloppiness. Certainly here there was a sense that they had succumbed to what might charitably called Juve’s greater experience. When Juventus made the game a battle early in the second half, Spurs allowed themselves to be rattled.
Allegri, of course, deserves enormous credit for stemming the Tottenham flow, first by adoption of the dark arts and then with his substitutions, but there must surely be a concern that a team that is now unbeaten in 21 games, that has conceded just once in that spell to a team other than Tottenham, could find itself so physically outgunned. It still found a way to win, it’s true, but other sides may not betray the defensive frailty that Tottenham did.
In the final minutes, once the shock of going behind had faded, Tottenham had its chances. Christian Eriksen had a shot deflected just wide, Son fizzed a shot just past the post and Harry Kane headed against the woodwork. Those efforts cannot be relied upon always to miss the target. The message was clear: Juve will wobble when pressed and Serie A, perhaps, is not a test that really prepares a side for the latter stages of the Champions League.
It might, perhaps, have been different had Barzagli been sent off as he surely should have been just after the half-hour mark, when he barged into Son as they jumped for a header, landed on him and then, just to make sure, stamped on him again. Polish referee Szymon Marciniak did not have a distinguished night. Son exacted his own revenge six minutes later by turning in a Kieran Trippier cross.
Then again, it might have been different had Juve been awarded the clear penalty it was denied after 18 minutes, as Douglas Costa seemed to be fouled by a lunging Jan Vertonghen on the right side of the box. Three officials were within 20 yards of the incident, yet none gave it. The only possible explanation–and it is not really an adequate one–is that the fact that Vertonghen first caught Costa’s front leg and then his back leg made his fall look oddly protracted. But there can be no doubt it was a foul.
A year ago, with Dele Alli sent off for a spiteful lunge, Tottenham slipped out of the Europa League with a home draw against Gent. It had already exited the Champions League in the group stage. Then, the sense was that it lacked the experience, the nous, to compete in Europe. This season, Spurs have beaten Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and have progressed immeasurably, but again they were undone by a more streetwise side.