TURIN, Italy — It is in the biggest games, against the strongest opposition, that the careers of the very best are defined.
In years to come, Tottenham Hotspur will hope that their 2-2 Champions League draw against Juventus proves to be nothing more than a footnote — or a prelude — to an historic period of success. However, as of now, Tuesday’s game is one of those that manager Mauricio Pochettino and his players will regard as a high watermark.
Spurs impressed in the group stage but the knockout rounds are a step up and, for many players, this was the biggest night of their careers: The first leg of a tie against true European football royalty.
And, after their side fell 2-0 behind inside 10 minutes, Christian Eriksen, Mousa Dembele and Harry Kane orchestrated a comeback that justified much of the hype that surrounds them and their team.
Dele Alli also highlighted his ability to excel at this level, just as he did when scoring twice in a group-stage win vs. Real Madrid in November, while Hugo Lloris overcame that difficult opening to underline his status as one of the world’s best goalkeepers.
Eriksen was the standout performer, though, and his display showed he can compete and influence games against the very best.
It was not in the same stratosphere as Roy Keane’s performance in Turin for Manchester United against Juventus in 1999, nor was it comparable to Steven Gerrard’s immense display of leadership, six years later, which brought Liverpool back from the dead to win the Champions League against AC Milan in Istanbul.
Nonetheless, this was a level that Eriksen had yet to clear in a Spurs shirt and he did so in spectacular fashion. There could be no greater compliment than to suggest that, on more than one occasion, his distribution and vision had shades of Paul Scholes or Xavi at their best.
Eriksen’s first-half cross to Kane, which the forward wastefully headed straight at Gianluigi Buffon, was a sign of his radar being in full working order and he continued to probe and jab as Spurs made a comeback that was completed by Eriksen’s second-half free kick.
A formidable Juventus back four had conceded just one goal in 15 games prior to this game but they could not deal with Spurs’ No. 23, who drifted around the final third, relishing and taking the opportunity to star on the biggest stage.
Despite being one of the stars of the Premier League, Eriksen can go unnoticed at times, particularly given the spotlight commanded by Kane and Alli. But the 25-year-old is the real deal and performances like this one in Turin only serve to emphasise that.
Yet if Eriksen sometimes does not get the credit he deserves, Dembele probably goes even more unheralded. Maybe it is down to the job he does, sitting deeper than Eriksen, but he is a powerhouse in Tottenham’s engine room. The Belgium international has strength and flair in equal measure and he dominated against the struggling Sami Khedira.
Just like Eriksen, Dembele elevated himself to show he can influence and impact the biggest games and all of a sudden, Spurs have a few such players, from Lloris in goal to Dembele, Eriksen, Alli and Kane. Pochettino’s men are becoming a Champions League team with pedigree, thanks to games such as this.
The tie is finely poised and Juventus, streetwise and experienced, have the tools to catch their opponents out at Wembley in the second leg, but Tottenham’s manager knows that his team, who have won at home vs. Manchester United and Arsenal in the last two weeks, are learning how to compete with — and beat –the best.
“We are more mature now,” Pochettino said after Tuesday’s game. “In the last few weeks, the team are growing and have stepped up. It is a good example of the capacity we have. But I want to congratulate the players. The team was amazing in how they reacted, 2-0 down in Turin to a team so difficult to break down. We deserved a victory more than a draw.”
There are tweaks that will need to make at Wembley, particularly in defence where Pochettino will be without the suspended, and unreliable, Serge Aurier. But one thing he will not need to work on is the mindset of his players; as Kane admitted, they have proved their mettle.
“We could have capitulated, away from home in the Champions League,” Kane said. “It showed character. It was an excellent performance after that and we take two away goals to Wembley. It was a great result.”
Indeed it was but, beyond that, it was also a night on which Spurs made a statement: They belong in the Champions League.