“You can’t tell me Spurs didn’t deserve to win that,” were the words of a riled-up Jermaine Jenas after last season’s FA Cup semi-final.
He took a lot of social media flak for those words, but it’s hard to disagree with him. The problem with asserting that the losing side deserved to win is that you have to also imply that the winning team didn’t. In a game that ended 4-2 that doesn’t quite seem right.
And yet Jenas was undeniably on to something: Tottenham controlled the game and would have been disappointed to lose. But it all comes back to a point plenty of people have made over the last two years.
Many have put it clumsily. Spurs are bottlers, they say, or that they have to win a trophy otherwise their best players will leave. These sorts of criticisms go too far, but there is a valid kernel of truth in them: Spurs do need to find a way to win big games. It happened again this season. Another big Wembley occasion where Mauricio Pochettino’s side dominated but couldn’t get over the line.
When the Champions League draw pitted Tottenham against Juventus it was always going to be an interesting tie for the neutral onlookers: the wily old campaigners up against the bright young things. That was how it played out: Spurs dazzled with the modern, innovative football we all know they can play, but the greater experience of a seasoned Juve side was the difference in the end.
They didn’t ‘bottle’ anything, but nor do they deserve to emerge unscathed when criticism is handed out: Spurs managed the tie poorly and paid the price. Just as they did in the FA Cup semi final last year.
It’s all well and good to put it down to experience, to talk about a young team who are making progress year after year and who will eventually get it right and crawl over the line. That may well be true. But the problem is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: that what was a lack of experience turns into bad experience.
There was nothing Spurs could have done about Nemanja Matic’s strike last year. Indeed, Eden Hazard’s the season before was also a sumptuous hit from a world class player. Tottenham’s list of valiant efforts over the last few seasons often see them come close but not quite make it. But that cannot be the identity this team creates for itself.
Newcastle’s entertainers in the 1990s will be remembered more fondly by the passing of time than most teams in Premier League history, but they didn’t win a trophy. At the same time, though, they are also remembered for Kevin Keegan’s rant and his reaction to a late Liverpool winner when he slumped over an advertising hoarding unable to mentally process the depths of his side’s pathological failures.
That’s why this weekend is so important for Tottenham. Chelsea are still in a top four race and could well be Spurs’ opponents in an FA Cup final if both sides can navigate their respective semis. But victory for Pochettino’s side would cement a top four spot and put the Blues firmly in their place. It would send a message and, most importantly, it would be a chance to come away from a big, pressurised game with a victory.
It’s not just ‘experience’ that this exciting young team needs. It has to be good experience.