When you visit Juventus Stadium what first surprises you is its relative lack of size. In the brave new world of billion pound amphitheatres, two-way tunnel mirrors and cheese rooms, 41,000 seats isn’t a great many for comfortably the most successful club in Italian football history or a team currently pushing for a seventh consecutive league title and third Champions League final in four years.
Yet, what hits you the moment you step inside this fabulously modern arena, despite holding barely half that of the San Siro, is the sheer intimacy of the environment. The stands don’t simply stand, they loom like cliffs over the pitch’s perimeter. It’s as if the place itself has as much vested in the final score as those 41,000 who come to fill it and, just as they unconsciously edge towards the front of their seats in the heat of the moment, the stadium too seems to lean in for a better look.
The grand sum of this fusion between man and mortar is, one imagines, about as claustrophobic and uncomfortable an experience for a visiting team as European football can serve up. And that’s before you even begin to think about slaying the seasoned beast that comes to life within those four towering walls.
On Tuesday night it took Tottenham only 10 minutes to come to terms with the reality of this hostile atmosphere. The problem was that by that time they already 2-0 down. First Dele Alli had allowed Gonzalo Higuain to peel off his back at a free-kick before pivoting and powering a low strike past Hugo Lloris. Then Ben Davies, with all the clumsiness of a man still feeling his way into the alienness of his surroundings, clattered into Federico Bernardeschi allowing Higuain to double his tally.
The Champions League is a tournament where, as we’ve seen so many times with so many teams, you evolve in baby-steps. First you achieve the not insignificant feat of getting there in the first place only to be rewarded by getting dumped out in the group stages. You then return and progress to being dumped out in the round of 16 before coming back once more only this time more acquainted with the harsh realities of elite level knockout football. We’ve seen Manchester City struggle with this process in the past and now Tottenham seemed to be fitting the trajectory to a tee. Having gotten over the ignominy of their exit last year and qualified impressively this time around from the most challenging of groups, their struggles all seemed to make sense. It was a stark reminder that, despite playing Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal in their last three league games, and indeed coming out of that stretch unbeaten, European football remains a step up in intensity and class for which there is no substitute for experience. This is just how it goes. First you’re a piece of meat tossed onto an Italian barbecue, then you start the slow transition from prey to predator.
But then, just as they were about to meekly settle into the role tradition dictated, Spurs began to roar. As Juventus retreated into a defensive shell and primed to mercilessly pick them off on the break, the visitors finally came out of the metaphoric one which had subdued them in the opening stages. With their fate seemingly already sealed, they advanced into the space forfeited by their hosts and started throwing a few punches of their own.
First Harry Kane threw himself to the ground in a claim for a penalty which seemed to epitomise the desperation still running through Tottenham’s veins. Then the striker was presented with a golden chance from a pinpoint Christian Eriksen cross only to direct his header straight into Gianluigi Buffon’s imposing frame.
The chances were now starting to come with regularity at both ends and, not long after Higuain had whistled a left-footed effort whiskers past the post, it was Kane who had the goal he and his team craved.
After being slid though by Alli, Kane decided that if he couldn’t go through Buffon he’d have to go around him. The centre forward swerved by the goalkeeper as if he was just your average 40 year old man from the crowd rather than a World Cup winner 175 caps to his name before cutting the ball back into the net.
Suddenly, the hosts were the ones unsure of what they were doing. Did they now continue to sit back or should they push forward as they had so successfully from the opening whistle? Was it now more important to score a third or prevent the equaliser? The shrewdness of their compact defensive unit now appeared more like a small band of soldiers surrounded by their enemy. As Juventus began to resemble strangers in their own home, Spurs started to take advantage of the open buffet. Every second ball and deflection seemed to fall to a Tottenham foot and, more often than not, that of either Eriksen or Moussa Dembele who increasingly began to dictate the play in the middle of the pitch.
How different it all might have been, however, if Higuain had taken his second golden opportunity to finish off a first half hat-trick. Despite having the most experience of all the Tottenham players at this level, Serge Aurier is player severely lacking in composure under pressure. As he ran stride for stride into the box with Douglas Costa, you could sense the point of pride he’d fashioned in his own mind about not losing the race with the jet-heeled Brazilian. Costa, however, could sense it too, nipping inevitably ahead to the ball before gladly going over the Ivorian’s recklessly dangled leg. Pride cometh before the fall and a third goal seemed certain to follow it. All Spurs’ efforts to claw their way back into the tie seemed to have been undone with one moment of madness, only for Higuain to return the favour by blasting his effort back off the middle of the bar with the last kick of the half.
Yes the visitors had ridden their luck, yet, as another saying has it, they’d made their own. Having gotten back into the dressing room at the break only a goal down they returned for the second half with the same purpose that had illuminated their best periods in the first. Eriksen was again instrumental, dropping deep and controlling the tempo, and it was the Dane who grabbed the goal both he and Spurs deserved. Just as Kane had wrong-footed the goalkeeper one on one, the diminutive midfielder did so from 20 yards. As Buffon shuffled along his line in anticipation of a curler into his left top corner, he could only stop himself in time to see the ball to skim into his bottom right one. It was an effort of sublime design and exquisite execution. Barring the opening 10 minutes, much the same could be said of Tottenham as a whole.