When Tottenham Hotspur were knocked out of the Champions League at the group stages last season, there were plenty of reasons offered.
A group containing Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow didn’t look like the most difficult to navigate on paper, and even though we now know that last season’s Monaco side were one of the best on the continent, it still doesn’t look all that great: at least second place should have been within reach.
The quality of opposition and the fact that home games were played at Wembley – itself a mitigating factor at the start of this season, but a year ago it was prescient – are perhaps valid excuses, but they miss the point somewhat: few English teams take to Champions League football like ducks to water.
Perhaps the Leicester City story is, once again, a stick to beat the bigger clubs with here, given the Foxes’ run in the competition was only ended by Atletico Madrid in reasonably controversial circumstances. But normally, English debutants in the competition struggle.
Tottenham were not debutants, but the team who last played in the Champions League, losing to Real Madrid in 2012 was markedly different to the team who drew with the European Champions in the Bernabeu last week. But perhaps what stands out about the Tottenham side who didn’t manage to get through the group stage last season was quite simply their approach to Europe: it was decidedly flat.
That’s not meant as a criticism. But when the explanations for the flatness boil down to the stadium and the opposition last season, again, it misses the point.
Spurs are a team who have, for the last 11 seasons, played European football every year except one. And of those 10 seasons in European competition, only one of them did not see them play Europa League / UEFA Cup football at some point. Indeed, for the last four seasons, they’ve been pottering around the last 16 / last 32 stage, clearly wishing they were somewhere else. Fair enough: why aim to win the Europa League when your main goal is to be in the Champions League? That’s why the winners now get a Champions League spot, but that came too late for Tottenham to take it seriously.
The point is that Spurs have not had a truly rousing European night for quite some time. And that’s probably why the flatness that greets a Tottenham night in Europe is so marked.
As they take on Real Madrid – the European champions who are, handily, suffering a difficult run of results – that might well change. But as they face the Spanish club this week, and with the focus on two players who are returning to face their old team in London, there’s one European night against prestigious opposition that Tottenham should draw on: and ironically, it’s a moral victory rather than an actual one.
The further irony is that the man responsible for Tottenham’s performance that night won’t play against them this week, Gareth Bale.
Drawn, as they are this year, in a group which included the European Champions, Spurs faced a tough group. Inter Milan were the obvious threat, but Werder Bremen and FC Twente were canny opposition for Harry Redknapp’s side, who actually were making their debut in the Champions League.
Just over seven years ago, Spurs travelled to the San Siro to take on Inter and things started off as badly as possible. After just two minutes, Javier Zanetti put Inter ahead, before Heurelho Gomes was sent off and gave away a penalty.
Luka Modric was sacrificed so that substitute goalkeeper Carlo Cudicini could come on in goal, but things would not get any better in the first half. The subsequent penalty made it two-nil after 11 minutes. It became three after 14 and then four before half time: for Spurs, it was a baptism of fire in Europe’s biggest club competition. For the San Siro faithful, it was a Champions League mauling they hadn’t even the previous season when they won the trophy: Jose Mourinho’s side were as well-drilled as any other Mourinho side we’ve seen, and their victories came narrowly, even if they weren’t in any doubt.
But just as Mourinho sides don’t tend to score four first-half goals, they often don’t tend to collapse. And that’s exactly what Inter did in the second half. Or rather, what Gareth Bale made them do.
It was his announcement on the scene, in many respects. The night that Bale came of age as a truly world class player was probably that night, or at least when the wider world started to take notice. A hat-trick was to come: a first after just seven minutes of the second half, when Bale ran 50 yards to fire in his first, and two more in the final two minutes of the game.
That was where it ended, but perhaps not where it should have stopped: only two minutes were added onto the end of the 90, in which Bale scored his hat-trick, but was denied the opportunity to achieve the mother of all comebacks. Two of Spurs’ three goals goals came in the 90th minute or later, but with only two additional minutes, there was no hope of a point.
It didn’t harm Tottenham, who qualified from the group in second place, and would travel back to Milan for another big European performance against AC Milan this time, before finally succumbing to Real Madrid at the quarter final stage. But what’s more important for Spurs is that they weren’t able to channel that spirit into subsequent European adventures. Since then, they’ve only made a European quarter final one more time, losing on penalties to Basel in the Europa League. It hasn’t served as a rousing night to make Spurs fans dream in the way that it looked like it might at the time.
Fast forward to this year, and Spurs need to make the same sort of mark against Real Madrid. A draw in the Bernabeu was more than a creditable result against a seemingly all-conquering Madrid side, but it’s not the positive result that Spurs need, it’s a rousing one. The chance to emotionally connect a game with a competition like the Champions League is vital, and as Spurs are still relatively new to a competition they want to be in year on year, that’s what they need to hope for when they face Madrid once again.
In the end, it’s not Wembley, the quality of opposition or even worrying about other competitions that kept Spurs back last season, it was not having an emotional connection to the competition. This time, with Borussia Dortmund looking all but eliminated, Spurs can surely afford to take the game to Real Madrid in search of a rousing night at Wembley. Like Bale in 2011, this could be the year that Spurs announce themselves on a bigger stage than just the Premier League.