|With Tottenham's 3-1 home win in
Group H of the Champions League, they qualified for the knock-out
stages for the second time in the club's history, with two group
games left to play. This progress shows more than mere
advancement in this season's competition, but progress on a bigger
With the victory over the reigning champions, who retained the Champions League becoming the first team to do so since AC Milan in the late 1980s, Spurs have announced their coming of age in the competition. The win against Borussia Dortmund a couple of months back indicated that we had grown up (see ), but this match sent out a different message.
When you step into European football, it is very different to the home league style. That also changes when you step up from the Europa League to the Champions League. Different teams playing different styles with different tactics and tempos. You learn that possession is not just nine-tenths of the law, but it is 100% of importance in trying to manage games against continental sides. Reaching the quarter-finals at the first attempt under Harry Redknapp was an immense achievement, but since then, the burden of staying in the competition was out-weighing actually trying to achieve something in it. Champions League qualification became the prime objective and that was normally through the league placing. The Premier League form therefore came before progress in the Champions League and so, we fell at the group stage to make sure we were in it the following season. This season, with the team now able to compete at the top of the Prem, the onus is on re-prioritising competitions, with the League Cup and FA Cup disposable, leaving the Premier and Champions Leagues as the ones to aim for.
This win is only a one off and while everyone says that Real Madrid are not the team that they once were, this shouldn't detract from the way Spurs set about the holders. By pushing the wing-backs up to press the Real midfielders and their wing-backs, there was not the space for them to work into and Trippier and Davies both enjoyed more possession in dangerous areas than their counterparts. With Dier and Winks hassling in central midfield and Dele and Harry both tracking back, this caused uncharacteristic poor passing by the Spanish side, often leading to possession turning over to Tottenham.
Losing Toby Alderweireld after 20 minutes would have been a fatal blow in the past, but a quick re-arrangement of the back three, with Dier dropping in and Sissoko filling in the space he left, produced a seamless transition. Moussa played the role with intelligence, covering for Trippier when he was attacking from right wing back. Dier put in a fine performance and Jan and Davinson were almost unheralded, but their work was outstanding. This has all come from Mauricio instilling into the players that they know their role in the team shape. Where they should be and to take note of where other players are. Where to make runs and when to support the man on the ball. The players have obviously bought into this and with that comes Poch's winning mentality. How often in the past has a late goal set off a nervy ten minutes before the final whistle for Tottenham fans ... and often a more disappointing ending than would have been expected. While Real built pressure and Spurs dropped back and extra 20 yards, they stood firm and resisted the attacks from the visiting team. The determination to keep Real out was shown none more readily than from the corner, where Ramos headed down, Trips cleared off the line and then there was a massive scramble, with white shirts ready to block the ball had it got past Ronaldo's leg.
It wasn't so much of a win as a mauling, with Real looking ragged and lacking shape, determination or purpose. Some of that might be due to their current form, but much was a result of the way Spurs marshalled them, won possession and then quickly hit them with attacks from back to front. They couldn't handle the way Tottenham moved into space, leaving Madrid light and opening up opportunities like the third goal, where the move started on the edge of our box and ended with Eriksen free on the edge of theirs to finish with confidence. A result of quick passing, good awareness and intelligent running carved through the black shirts.
And this all came after the draw in the Bernabeu. That was not a result where we held us to a draw. They held us to a draw. Yes, Lloris played well, but the chances that fell our way meant it wasn't all one way and for supposedly the favourites for the competition and not just to win the group, we came away with the more credit for the outcome. The same happened at Wembley and that will give the team massive confidence, whoever they face. Yes, there are teams who could give us a lesson in how to play European football, but now, it will only add to our education, as we are working from a more elevated starting position.
But there is still so much more to come from this team. The players were not nearing retirement and many are just starting their careers. The longer the team stays together, the stronger they can become and results like this can only enhance that belief. Some have been touted as being wanted by other clubs (as has Pochettino), but why would they want to move to other clubs ? Money is a motivating factor for some and the need for silverware. The articles go on about Spurs having to win a trophy this season or they will risk the team splitting up. But apart from the people writing those articles, who says so ? There are some who only judge each season by trophies on display, but when you consider where we were a few seasons back, the progress that has been made since Poch took over has been dramatic. Even the progress from the Champions League campaign of last season to this one shows a marked difference in approach, application and belief. If we get knocked out in the round of 16, then the progress has been made, both in the stage we have reached, but more importantly the way we have shown that we are able to be comfortable in such company and to earn the respect of teams who are drawn against us.
When the manager and players see the potential within the team, there is an added incentive to stay and Lloris' words about his pleasure at deciding to stay shows that they believe that something in building at Spurs ... and it's not just the new stadium ! The possibilities shine a light on a positive future and as well as the current staff wanting to see the 'project' through, it could attract players who can add to the squad strength.
If players leave where would they be better off playing wise ? Arsenal ? Not likely for a while. Chelsea ? Money motivated players might make the move, but the instability at the club, with managers and players coming and going don't make it that appealing. Manchester United ? A manager with an ego and a side who shut up shop and play long ball football ? They may be more successful than with previous managers, but would you develop as a player in that side ? That leaves Manchester City. Possibly the most unshackled side in the country at the moment and one that could be special. but another season will tell whether they can make that name for themselves.
But Tottenham are about the collective, not the individual. There are moments of individual brilliance that may turn or win a game, but the efficiency is everyone doing their job and imposing the system on the opposition. At the time, they were the best I had seen in a long time, but the Champions League team of 2010-11 featured some fantastic individuals, but Spurs were reliant on them to turn it on, with alack of depth in quality throughout the side. The current side cover for each other and while there are some star players, they are all in it together and work excellently under Pochettino's hand as a unit. Formidable is the way to describe them when they are at their best (and that's the English pronunciation).
We have looked into the face of the group of death and laughed in it to go through.
Now for Poch to mastermind the next step forward.
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