Before this comes off as overly cocky, let me start by saying that I (and any rational Spurs fan, I assume) expected nothing positive from our UCL Group Stage fixture in Madrid last Tuesday night. Real are several levels of quality above us and have a success record in this competition that, frankly, most European teams don’t come anywhere near. In the build-up to Tuesday’s match, my focus was solely on the magnitude of the occasion and just how surreal it was that my Spurs were playing Los Blancos. The potential to get a result never realistically crossed my mind.
David versus Goliath?
During my workday, as kick-off drew near, I saw the first bits of team news trickle out and this “no expectations” stance seemed even more apropos. I knew Dele was still suspended, and that Rose and Lamela wouldn’t play, but Dembélé not fit? That was an issue. And Davies, arguably our most in-form player outside of Harry Kane, still injured? Also a pretty big problem.
Then, when our full starting line-up came out, I saw not one, not two, but three surprises. Poch had gone for the big man Llorente up front, as a partner with Kane, AND started both Harry Winks and Moussa Sissoko. Winks I could understand, although the lad had yet to hit puberty when Gareth Bale lifted his first UCL trophy with Madrid. He’s been one of our best players in midfield all season and deserved the start. But Sissoko? Surely Son would have been a better choice. All-in-all, I saw that line-up and thought to myself, “Well, we’re either going to do surprisingly well or get absolutely smashed.”
Thankfully, it proved to be the former. Sissoko, bless his first-touch deprived soul, played one of his best games in a Spurs’ shirt. Winks held down the midfield admirably against much, much better players than himself. In the end, we needed some heroics from Lloris to earn the draw, but on another day, Kane or Eriksen might have squeaked the goal that would’ve won it. Besides, the fact that we didn’t win was as much due to the brilliance of Madrid’s Keylor Navas as anything else. I can accept such a result when we were up against a keeper who, along with Lloris, played an absolute blinder.
It was really nothing short of a miracle that we played so well despite missing so many key players. Dele and Dembélé are among the first names on Poch’s XI each week, yet we coped without them against quite literally the best Champions League team of our generation. The spine of the Madrid team (that started on Tuesday) was present for their previous two UCL triumphs; meanwhile, we fielded several players who have hardly started a match all season. Given that Dortmund failed to break down Apoel in Group H’s other fixture, a point from the away tie in our Madrid double-header seems almost as good as a win.
Critics will point to our inability to kill the game Tuesday as a sign that we aren’t quite at the level required to win a competition like the Champions League. That criticism has some merit. Eriksen—normally such a talismanic figure for us—was strangely anonymous for most of Tuesday’s proceedings. Kane also missed a few chances that he bangs in nine times out of ten weekly in the Premier League. That said, the Englishman didn’t exactly have a poor game, either. His run created the OG that put us ahead, and honestly, he couldn’t have placed the low shot Navas saved in the second half any better. Incidentally, that goes for 95% of the keepers on this planet. Kane was, unfortunately, up against one of the few goalies capable of getting down quickly enough to tip such a strike away.
Captain Lloris and his imperious back line proved they can deal with a top-class attack quite well, too. With the exception of the penalty, which was an individual mistake from the otherwise excellent Aurier, our defense afforded Madrid very few clear-cut opportunities. On the occasions where we broke down, Lloris came to the rescue. His close-range save on Benzema was insane and will surely take all the plaudits when it comes to evaluating his performance. The Frenchman, however, was measured and sure-handed throughout—his “routine” stops were often just as important as that wonder-save in keeping the score level.
Leave room at the top for Spurs
Had we lost Tuesday’s match, there wouldn’t necessarily have been an uproar. Almost every major pundit expected us to go down swinging, and the only critique we’d hear is the familiar refrain of us not being ready to step-up and join the game’s elite. I won’t be as foolish as to suggest that a one-off result with Madrid puts us in their caliber, though it would seem to indicate we are approaching the level needed to compete on the grandest of stages. The team we brought to Madrid was, with the exception of the defense, a hodge-podge of non-ideal options being asked to do the most difficult of jobs. Yet, they held off a vastly superior squad—away from home—and could even claim to have outplayed their opposition for large periods of the match.
Years ago, Spurs were comfortably trounced by Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final. On that day, we weren’t anywhere close to the standard necessary to compete with the very best. Tuesday’s match wasn’t the explosive arrival to elite status many Spurs fans quietly hoped for, but it was a warning shot across the collective bow of the game’s strongest teams. Spurs fear no one and every single player in the squad believes in their manager and the team’s approach. That’s the hallmark of a top side, and if Tuesday is any indication, we’re only going to get better with experience.