Juventus’s Champions League Round of 16 match with Tottenham started incredibly well Tuesday evening, as Gonzalo Higuain put the hosts up 2-0 inside the first 10 minutes. Spurs recovered from the initial shock to their system, however, and clawed back two valuable away goals to render the tie—finely balanced for the return leg at Wembley.
Pochettino vs. Allegri
Kane vs. Chiellini.
Physicality vs. technicality.
It was all on display in this thrilling starter course to what is sure to be a great UCL knockout round. Let’s dig in…
Juve show their class early
Fast goals are becoming a habit with Tottenham lately, whether they are the benefactors or the victims. It was a case of the latter on Tuesday, as Juve stormed to a 2-0 lead before Spurs even knew they were playing. Their first was laughably simple, yet beautifully executed. A dinked chip found Higuain in space at the top of the box, and he didn’t even let it hit the floor before turning on it smartly to nestle a volley into the bottom corner. Lloris got a hand to it but was evidently caught out by Higuain’s refusal to take a touch before firing away.
The second goal came via a penalty as Ben Davies fouled Federico Bernardeschi inside the area. Higuain stepped up for the spot-kick, and although Lloris again came close to the striker’s effort, he couldn’t quite keep it out. Juve were 2-0 up and cruising, and “Lads it’s Tottenham” memes were flying all over the internet. The match looked for all the world like it’d turn into a pretty bad rout.
Spurs grow into the game
The Spurs of old would have wilted and conceded two or three more goals after such a start to a big game, but Poch’s men rallied impressively for the remainder of the first half. They seized an improbable stranglehold on possession almost immediately after the second goal, and never really looked back. As Spurs prodded and probed along the Juve back line, it was clear there were gaps to exploit in the Italians’ normally solid defense. A penalty shout for Kane that was waved off should have been a wake-up call for the Old Lady, but they simply couldn’t get out of their own half.
Eventually, Dele found an opening in the 35th minute, sliding Kane through in behind the defense. Even against a class keeper like Buffon, Kane wasn’t going to miss from the position he found himself in. He rounded the veteran shot-stopper and slotted home for 2-1. At that moment, it looked like Spurs would go on to equalize before halftime.
Aurie—OH MY GOD
If I’m being critical, there were a couple Spurs players on Tuesday who simply didn’t look at the races. Dele (save the ball through to Kane) was largely anonymous. Dier didn’t look particularly great in the center of the park, though in all fairness, Mousa Dembélé was so good that it didn’t make much of a difference. Davinson Sánchez had some uncharacteristically nervy moments at the back, too.
But by far, the Spurs man who looked most out of his depth was Serge Aurier, who ironically was the only Spurs outfield player with any UCL knockout round experience to start the game. Serge was so uncomfortable on the ball, and so errant in his passing, that Dier and Dembélé had to commit at least three to four fouls apiece—purely due to hospital passes from the Ivorian.
Not content to simply spray trash passes all over the place, Aurier also did his best to erase the progress made after Kane’s goal, bringing down Douglas Costa in the penalty area in first-half stoppage time. Thankfully, Higuain took pity on us and smashed his would-be hat-trick straight into the crossbar. Had the Argentine converted, though, it’s highly unlikely Spurs would have scrambled for the draw. Given how well Trippier has played in previous UCL matches, it’s hard to see Aurier starting the return leg after that performance.
Eriksen gets cheeky, Buffon gets embarrassed
Let me start by saying this…I love Gigi Buffon. I hate Italian soccer, but it’s legitimately impossible to dislike that man. There were players on both teams’ benches last night that WEREN’T EVEN ALIVE when Buffon started playing. To still be competing at this level—at his age—is borderline absurd. I’m starting to question whether the beautiful, slick-haired bastard hasn’t found the Fountain of Youth and is just refusing to tell us.
All that said, Gigi cost his team the result last night. When Dele was brought down late in the second half right outside the area, the whole stadium knew what was going to happen. Eriksen vs. Gigi, mono y mono, one kick to decide between a home win and a potentially hazardous draw. The central position of the kick made it more difficult for the keeper, of course, but when Eriksen decided to go low around the wall, he didn’t exactly catch it well.
Apart from the subterfuge in departing from his typical up-down free kick execution, the Dane had no right scoring such a tame effort. Unfortunately, Buffon couldn’t scramble across the goal in time to do anything but tip it further into the net. It’s tough not to imagine a younger, more spry net-minder getting over to save it easily. Even Lloris probably gobbles that up without much fuss.
Verdict: Spurs the happier of the two sides
As the match progressed yesterday, both of my soccer-focused group chats were buzzing with live reactions. After the first two goals went in, the general consensus was that Spurs were going to get hosed. Strangely enough, however, I remained pretty confident despite the poor start…
…because when it comes to the knockout round in UCL, away goals are king. We could’ve shipped four against Juve yesterday and it wouldn’t have been too bad as long as we scored four as well. I could tell from the first half that Juve’s defense were struggling. The beauty of our formation is that our attacking midfielders basically just do whatever the hell they please underneath Kane, and opposing defenses focus so much on him that pockets of space open up everywhere.
If you look at the two goals we scored, both were enabled by a combination of the press and our attacking midfielder’s cleverness. Eriksen harassed Chiellini into ceding possession for the first, and within two seconds Dele had slipped Kane through. We transition from defense to attack in the blink of an eye in those situations, and it’s hard for teams to stay constantly alert to it. For the second goal, Dele received a pass on the edge of the box and guided his defender into the foul with a smart turn. We’re just very hard to mark up top when we have four players constantly interchanging roles and positions, and Juve clearly don’t face that kind of team every week in Italy.
To leave Turin with two away goals is a massive advantage for us. Juve have to come to Wembley and attack now, and we are deadly on the counter. We all saw what happened to Real when they came to England and committed men forward. If they’re not careful, the same will happen to Juve as they chase the goal they need to re-assume control of the tie.