Tottenham Hotspur will feel that two doses of a mindless few minutes have cost them a place in the quarter finals of this season’s Champions League.
During the early exchanges in Turin last month, Mauricio Pochettino’s side appeared overawed by their own progress in the competition and the calibre of the opposition as Juventus striker Gonazalo Higuain found the net in the second minute and scored again from the penalty spot in the ninth after an erroneous challenge from Ben Davies.
In the second leg last night, meanwhile, Tottenham surged ahead through Heung-min Son’s opener and appeared to be in almost complete control, until Max Allegri’s switch to 4-4-2 inspired an equaliser as Higuain once again netted with a poacher’s effort at the far post and Paolo Dybala then turned the tie on its head, Higuain becoming provider as his countryman latched onto his delicate pass to make it 4-3 on aggregate.
The key difference between the two legs though, was the potency in which Tottenham responded to their mistakes and most specifically the varying influence Mousa Dembele, one of the most dominant midfielders in Europe right now, had on both matches.
In Turin, as Spurs commandeered possession from the hosts, everything stemmed from the platform the Belgium international provided at the heart of midfield, using his power, intelligence and ingenuity to completely control his pocket of the engine room – whether that was winning the ball back or protecting it before selecting the right pass. Tellingly, he completed the most tackles, dribbles, passes and touches of the ball of any Spurs player at Juventus Stadium.
Last night, the circumstances were a little different. In the first half particularly, the space was between the midfield and Juventus’ defence rather than the area in Dembele’s remit.
But when Tottenham went behind and the visitors’ game-plan instantly changed to sticking all eleven men behind the ball – like in the first leg after the Italian champions scored twice early on – the 30-year-old was presented with the chance to replicate his influence, providing a basis to control possession and launch Tottenham’s forward play from.
But it just didn’t quite happen, at least not to the same extent. Dembele created less chances, completed less dribbles, had less touches of the ball and recorded less passes than he managed in the reverse fixture. Although Tottenham peppered Juventus’ final third in the closing stages and missed out on drawing level by the width of the goal line, Dembele’s ability to truly drive play from deep was missed while the Lilywhites futilely searched for an equaliser.
Perhaps that’s a harsh assessment of the 70-cap powerhouse, considering how exceptional his performance in Italy was last month even by the impeccable standards he’s set himself over the last few seasons – he still completed 98% of his passes last night, and hardly put in what can be described as a poor performance. But when you move from the bracket of top-class to world-class, this calibre of close scrutiny, criticism and expectation of responsibility is inevitable.
In some ways, it’s simply recognition how important Dembele has become to this Tottenham side, and how devastatingly effective he is when at the top of his game.