Two years ago, heck, 12 months ago, this Tottenham Hotspur side would have crumbled and lost 4-0 to Juventus in Turin on Tuesday.
[ MORE: Spurs react to Juve draw ]
But this Tottenham side is different. They are maturing before our eyes this season and the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Round of 16 clash was a coming of age party.
In the UCL knockout rounds for just the second time in club history (they crashed out in the UCL group stages last season) and the first time since 2010-11 when they reached the quarterfinals, expectation was in the air as you got the sense that all of the hard work this young Spurs side had put in since Pochettino arrived in 2014 had led to this point.
Trailing 2-0 after nine minutes amid a cauldron of a noise at the reigning Italian champions, a side who had been UCL runners up in two of the past three seasons, this wasn’t part of the plan.
Mauricio Pochettino‘s men looked startled but, more importantly, not stunned.
Gonzalo Higuain’s two early goals instead sparked Spurs into life and even when they were 2-0 down they looked the most likely to win.
Harry Kane had a good chance saved by Gianluigi Buffon before he pulled one back in the first half as wave after wave of Tottenham attacks flooded towards the usually impenetrable Juvenuts goal. Kane’s goal was the first Juve had conceded in 2018 and the first in any of their last 17 games in all competitions.
The Italian giants aren’t used to being dominated in this manner but with Christian Eriksen pulling the strings and Mousa Dembele and Eric Dier powering along in central midfield, Juve were the team who looked stunned. That said, they could’ve gone 3-1 up right on half time as Spurs gave away a second penalty of the game but Higuain, on a hat trick, smashed his penalty kick against the crossbar.
By that point it would’ve been a travesty has Spurs gone in 3-1 down at half time, such was their dominance in the opening 45 minutes. After the break it was more of the same.
Juve sat back and had the occasional chance on the break with Higuain going close and Federico Bernardeschi forcing Hugo Lloris into a fine save, but it was Spurs who looked comfortable and at home at one of Europe’s great teams.
Eriksen deservedly equalized from a free kick to cap off a fine individual display and it was a night where he, along with Kane, Dele Alli, and so many of Spurs’ squad who have now been together for three full seasons, came of age.
The respect and admiration that Juve’s stalwarts Buffon and Giorgio Chiellini in particular showed to Spurs’ young team at the final whistle told the entire story. This was not a case of boys against men.
Pochettino applauded a job well done at the final whistle as his side take two away goals back to Wembley with them for the second leg on March 7. They must get the job done on home soil at what promises to be a famous night at Wembley, but there’s no longer an air of impending implosion around Tottenham as there had been in the past.
Going into that game Spurs will fancy their chances of putting Juve away early on. Their youthful exuberance saw them come a cropper at pivotal junctures like this, but this is a different Spurs team.
Eriksen is 26. Kane, 24. Alli, 21. Dier, 24. Dembele, 30. Lloris, 31. Vertonghen, 30. Over the past few weeks they’ve beaten Manchester United and Arsenal, comfortably, at home, plus drew away at Liverpool in a similarly pulsating encounter.
Tottenham’s players all know their roles and they’ve all endured the heartache of coming close, but not close enough to glory, especially in their last two title races.
It seems that this season Tottenham are maturing into a team who are not only a perennial top four team in the Premier League but one that can challenge for European glory. All of this has been achieved amidst playing at a temporary home stadium and question marks about how on earth they can keep their best players at the club.
Pochettino’s team have matured like a fine Argentinian Malbec from his homeland that one can only assume he admires and enjoys, but not quite as much as he’s enjoying the maturity and progress of the squad he’s now assembled.