Tottenham Shows Impressive Mettle at Juventus, Man City Coasts Again in UCL
Tottenham made waves on the opening day of the Champions League knockout stage, coming back from 2-0 down to force a draw in the first leg of its last-16 series vs. Juventus in Turin. Even in a season when it has matured in European competition, this was a remarkable performance–and all the more so given that Spurs had gone 2-0 down within the opening nine minutes.
Gonzalo Higuain volleyed Juventus ahead after two minutes and added a second from the penalty spot seven minutes later, but, as Juve sat back, Tottenham recovered its composure and proceeded to dominate the game. Harry Kane pulled one back and then, vitally, Higuain struck the bar with another penalty on the stroke of halftime. Christian Eriksen leveled the score with a low free kick that caught Gianlugi Buffon flat-footed with 19 minutes remaining to force the draw.
Manchester City, meanwhile, as good as secured its place in the quarterfinals with a 4-0 victory at FC Basel. Ilkay Gundogan headed in a corner, Bernardo Silva converted Raheem Sterling’s cross and Sergio Aguero fizzed in a low shot–all within the first 23 minutes of the game. Gundogan curled his second of the night after an Aguero run eight minutes after halftime to put the match–and series–to bed early.
Here are three thoughts on the day in the Champions League:
Tottenham rebounds to control play at Juve
For 10 minutes, Spurs were awful. It wasn’t just that the defensive structure fell apart, it was that their nerve seemed to have gone entirely. Simple passes were misplaced, cul-de-sacs were run down regularly. But with Juve sitting surprisingly deep, Tottenham gradually rallied and began to take advantage of the space Juve, with its narrow set up, left on the flanks. Spurs remained open at the back, with Federico Bernadeschi particularly threatening, but Juve wobbled even more alarmingly and Buffon had made two fine saves from Harry Kane before the Spurs striker latched onto Dele Alli’s through ball to pull one back 10 minutes before halftime.
Juve was on a run of 10 straight wins, had conceded only one goal in its previous 16 games and had made a habit of beating the big teams in Serie A 1-0, but Tottenham clearly rattled the hosts, the ferocity of its press forcing a series of mistakes. Mousa Dembele, continuing his form off last weekend's North London Derby, was a colossus in the center. Spurs dominated possession to the tune of 62 percent and caused so many problems that by the time the equalizer arrived through Eriksen’s 71st-minute free kick, it felt almost overdue. Juve surely will not be so ragged at Wembley, but with two away goals the advantage is clearly with Tottenham.
The Alderweireld issue
Much has been made of how improved Tottenham has been in European competition this season, but in its two wins over Borussia Dortmund and the two games against Real Madrid, from which it took four points, Mauricio Pochettino set up with a back three. Although he stuck with that formation for three games after Toby Alderweireld damaged his hamstring midway through the first half of the 3-1 win over Madrid, he has essentially abandoned the shape since November.
Alderweireld returned last week in the FA Cup replay against Newport County but was left out of the win over Arsenal on Saturday, and he didn’t travel to Turin. Pochettino insisted it was because he doesn’t want to rush the Belgian back, but his oddly sharp reaction when asked about his absence on Saturday has prompted suspicions that there is an issue behind the scenes with Alderweireld’s contract.
Whether Pochettino would have used a back three had Alderweireld been available is impossible to say, but what was clear was that the two-man central defense was ruthlessly exposed early on. Right from kickoff it was clear there was an issue at the heart of the back line, with space opening up in front of Davinson Sanchez and Jan Vertonghen. That was what led to the panicky foul that conceded the second-minute free kick from which Higuain, sneaking away from a dozing defense (and slightly offside), volleyed Juve into the lead.
Seven minutes later, a simple move down the left led to Ben Davies being isolated, and he clumsily conceded the penalty from which Higuain added his second. It’s very hard, of course, to be sure, but with a back three, the move may have been stifled earlier by Serge Aurier playing higher up on the right, and the probability is that Higuain, who was fouled, would have been outnumbered by Vertonghen and Davies together.
The second penalty, meanwhile, was the result of Sanchez being dragged forward to try to make a challenge he couldn’t win, leading to Aurier’s rash challenge on Douglas Costa. Again that space in the inside-forward channel would probably have been blocked by a third central defender, and again there was a sense that the rearguard could have been better protected by the deep midfield. Then again, with a back three the press may not have been quite so aggressive, and Spurs may not have shaken Juve in quite the same way.
Another box ticked for Man City
Nobody at Manchester City is talking about the quadruple, or at least that’s what their players keep saying. Yet it’s 16 points clear at the top of the Premier League, in the final of the League Cup, in the fifth round of the FA Cup and now, surely, in the quarterfinal of the Champions League. Man City has been too good for everybody in England, and it was little surprise it was too good for Basel, even with David Silva and Leroy Sane restricted to the bench.
There was some shakiness at the back, particularly early on, and that could be a concern as the competition goes on, but once City settled into its rhythm it was, as it has been so often this season, unstoppable. The second leg will be a mere formality.