Tottenham crumble on the cusp of glory

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LONDON — It is too easy to roll out the “that’s so Spursy” line once again. But people will use it and this Tottenham team will continue to be linked with devastating failure at pivotal moments.

Clutch, they are not. But the progress is there for all to see.

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Tottenham Hotspur were on the cusp of another defining moment, with a win against Italian giants Juventus seeming inevitable with minutes to go at Wembley. But this young squad crumbled under the pressure at another key juncture of their hugely impressive rebuild over the last three years under Mauricio Pochettino.

They have so much to look forward to with a new stadium on the way, Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen yet to hit their prime and top four finishes almost guaranteed season after season. Yet the lack of trophies, and deep runs in the UEFA Champions League, will continue to haunt them. They are tantalizingly close to achieving their dreams but when Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala struck in the space of three second half minutes, most of Wembley sat in stunned silence even though they’d witnessed this same story play out before.

After dominating the reigning Italian champions, and Champions League runners up from two of the last three seasons, Juventus, for vast swathes of the 180 minutes during their Round of 16 clashes, Spurs succumbed to two sucker punches in three minutes at Wembley Stadium to crash out of Europe. That’s the difference at the top table where they want, and believe, they deserve to dine.

How many hits can this talented and hungry young team take before they finally start to regress and lose their incessant hunger?

This crushing exit in the UCL last 16 will be added to their title collapse in 2015-16 (specifically the late draw at Chelsea), their defeat in the FA Cup semifinal in 2016-17, the loss in the League Cup final in 2014-15 and their UCL group stage exit in 2016-17.

The hits keep coming, even if Pochettino says he is proud.

“No lack of experience. No lack of concentration. How many chances did we concede in the first leg and the second leg? Today I think we concede three chances and they scored twice. We created a lot of chances and only scored once. The reality is we concede three chances and they scored twice,” Pochettino said. “We created many, many chances. Sometimes you need some luck to win but I feel very proud. We compete very well against a very good team like Juventus. We dominate. Overall in the two games we were much better but in this type of level in three minutes I think the tie was for Juventus. I feel relaxed and happy. Disappointed of course but the quality and the capacity and performance of the team was very good today.”

After Higuain hooked home an equalizer on the night to make it 1-1 in the second leg and 3-3 on aggregate, Spurs’ young stars faced their biggest test to date. Hold their nerve and they would still edge through against Juventus. This was the moment we were going to see how much this team had learned from previous collapses at key moments. It was the same old story for Tottenham as Dybala went clean through three minutes later to score Juve’s crucial second goal.

Asked if this exit after outplaying Juventus was a nightmare, Pochettino was bullish.

“A nightmare, today? Why?” Pochettino said. “That is football, eh? I am still a dreamer. Of course I am disappointed today, when you compete in the Champions League and against this type of club, you can win or you can lose. Today we lose but in the way that we lose I am happy. For me football is not a nightmare. You can win or lose. We respect our idea and we play football and we create a lot of chances but it wasn’t enough to win the game. That is all.”

When it comes down to it and as harsh as it is to say, Tottenham keep losing when it matters most. That is all.

It could have been so different. If Son had buried the three chances he had in the first half. If Kane’s late header had crossed the line after it hit the post instead of staying out. The bottom line is that Kane, Alli and even Pochettino will only stick around a little while longer before the Real Madrids, Barcelonas and Manchester Uniteds come calling, clubs who seem destined to win silverware and deliver the glory Spurs talk about, and crave, but have yet to deliver. They’re going so close to what they want.

Nobody will be talking about the fact that Spurs dominated one of Europe’s top clubs over two legs and deserved to go through. Everybody will be talking about another missed opportunity just when this young squad seemed destined to arrive with respect levels at an all-time high across the globe.

After the game Juve’s players revealed that they expected Spurs to crumble.

“It’s the history of Tottenham. They always created many chances to score so much, but at the end they miss always something to arrive at the end,” Giorgio Chiellini said. “We knew how to handle things from the heights of our experience… We knew Spurs were weak in defense and fragile mentally. Experience told.”

Chiellini hit the nail on the head. Experience told. Juve took their chances when they arrived and made Tottenham pay the ultimate price.

This Spurs team doesn’t seem to be capable of closing key games out when it matters and when they deserve to. 2-0 up against Chelsea late in the 2015-16 campaign as they hunted down Leicester in search of the title. They conceded twice to let their chances slip. 3-2 up on aggregate and heading through to the last eight of the UCL against Juventus they conceded twice with 25 minutes to go to crash out.

It keeps happening. And, in the most brutal way possible, it is, indeed, “so Spursy” that this keeps happening at key moments.

Despite all of their obvious progress as a club on and off the pitch since Pochettino arrived in 2014, Tottenham will once again rue stumbling, and falling hard, at the most important hurdle.