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08th Mar 2018

Tottenham didn’t “bottle it” against Juventus

People need to stop calling it a 'bottle job'

Robert Redmond

There’s a difference between getting beaten by a very good team and bottling it.

Tottenham Hotspur crashed out of the Champions League on Wednesday night after losing an epic tie to Juventus. Over the two legs, Spurs were the better side for roughly 160 of the 180 minutes.

They came from two goals down in Turin to draw 2-2 and take advantage of the tie. After a blistering first-half performance at Wembley and Heung-min Son’s goal, it looked as though Mauricio Pochettino’s side were heading for the quarter-finals.

Then, in the space of three minutes in the second-half, Juventus were ahead in the game and in the tie. Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala both scored and the Italian champions held on thanks to some heroic defending and a slice of luck when Harry Kane’s header hit the inside of the post in the final minute.

It was a hard-fought tie, between two talented and well-coached teams, won by a single goal. Yet, the verdict on social media following the match appeared to be that Spurs “bottled” it.

It seems like every time Spurs lose a big match they’re labelled “bottlers.” They’re probably the only team in the Premier League who have to deal with this accusation, and it comes from the club’s reputation as a team that has historically managed to fall short. In Roy Keane’s second autobiography, he recounted how Sir Alex Ferguson’s team talk ahead of a United match against Spurs was simply, “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Even Giorgio Chiellini referred to this.

“It’s the history of Tottenham,” the Juventus defender told reporters following the game at Wembley.

“They always create many chances and score so much but, in the end, they miss always something to arrive at the end. We believe in history. Also yesterday in the game between Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain, the history it’s important and the experience is important.”

But Spurs didn’t lose to Juventus because of the burden of past failures, or because they’re “bottlers.” They lost because Juventus are an excellent, experienced team, who despite getting outplayed, managed to stay in the game. Tottenham overran the Italian team in the first-half. Son was giving the 36-year-old Andrea Barzagli a tough time, Juventus couldn’t get near Mousa Dembele in midfield and couldn’t find a way to bring their two forwards into the game.

In the second-half, Juventus tried to kill Spurs’ momentum with clever tactical fouls – particularly when Chiellini barged into Dele Alli as he broke into Juve’s half – and then Massimiliano Allegri made some smart changes.

Kwadwo Asamoah came on for Blaise Matuidi, who had been ineffective, and crucially Stephan Lichtsteiner replaced Medhi Benatia. This resulted in Barzagli moving to central defence in a four-man backline, away from Son, and Lichsteiner became an attacking outlet at right-back.

He was involved in Juventus’ equaliser, getting into a position Barzagli would not have been able to before crossing to Sami Khedira who headed it for Higuain to score.

Lichtsteiner posed a problem that Spurs hadn’t faced in the game until his introduction.

He was an effective attacking option, and a completely different proposition than Barzgli had been.

This tactical tweak got Juventus back into the game and came at a time when Tottenham’s intensity dropped a level or two.

For the decisive goal in the tie, Chiellini was allowed come forward from the back and pass the ball into Higuain’s feet – it’s difficult to imagine this occurring in the first-half when Spurs pressed and harried and didn’t give Juventus any time on the ball.

The Argentine striker held-off Davinson Sanchez and played a clever pass through to Dybala who emphatically finished past Hugo Lloris. Tottenham’s defence broke down for the goal, from Kieran Trippier playing offside instead of following Dybala, to Sanchez allowing Higuain to turn and pass after getting sucked-in when he followed the striker deep.

There are also questions about Lloris’ role. The Tottenham goalkeeper remained stationary while Dybala ran through on goal, making the forward’s job a lot easier. He arguably should have been 10 yards further forward, particularly as Spurs were playing a high-line.

However, these are very small margins and it’s harsh to be critical of Spurs for making these mistakes. Juventus have dominated Italian football over the past few seasons and have reached two of the last three Champions League finals. Against a lesser team, Tottenham would not have been punished. Even then, if Kane’s header doesn’t hit the post, or if Erik Lamela follows it up and scores the rebound, they would have taken the tie to extra-time.

This wasn’t a case of Spurs bottling the game, not even close. It was their first defeat in 18 matches. Juventus are serial winners and brilliant competitors. They found a way to win because they managed to stay in the game. They also had options from the bench to change their approach, something Spurs couldn’t do.

The “Spurs are bottlers” narrative just doesn’t fit, and there is no shame in losing what was the most competitive tie of the Champions League this season.