The storyline was set, and it was going to be one that we have seen time and time again all throughout sports.
The plucky upstarts, declaring that they belonged in the upper echelon of European football with their young, exciting stars and unrelenting style running over the old, creaky legacy team. After the match, all the experts and analysts would be more than ready to anoint the young’uns as the new blood of the competition, claiming they were now battle tested after beating a true blue-blood squad whose cycle was over.
For most of the Juventus-Tottenham tie, it sure looked that the aforementioned narrative was taking place.
Juventus had been absolutely overrun throughout most of the match in Italy. And after 45 minutes of looking uncomfortable and out of sorts at Wembley, it was very hard to see a scenario in which Juventus would come back to advance to the quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League. Andrea Barzagli had lost every single matchup against Son Heung-Min, who had been an absolute beast on the right side of the Juventus defense. Harry Kane had already missed a big opportunity and was seemingly getting the best out of Giorgio Chiellini.
The offensive side things were not looking any better. Other than a few misplaced touches, Paulo Dybala and Gonzalo Higuain were nowhere to be seen in London, only Douglas Costa provided the occasional flash of brilliance but other than that Juventus had little to no offensive game in a match that, after Son’s opener, needed two goals to achieve qualification.
Miralem Pjanic and Sami Khedira were struggling to link up the defense and the offense and Blaise Matuidi continued to be the engine that we have come to know, but there was not going to be a whole heck of a lot of offensive from the Frenchman.
So, dear readers, I’m not proud to admit this, but I sure thought they were cooked. In fact, I toyed with the idea of doing something else and stop watching the game, go get a beer with my friends, do laundry, work out, literally anything else than to watch another 45 minutes of my beloved team continue getting squashed. However, my big J, journalist integrity kept me going. Might as well finish what I started I thought.
Brief aside, in my native Mexico, plays a team called Cruz Azul. They are a mainstay of the top flight and generally considered one of Mexico’s classic teams. They have eight championships, fourth most in Mexico and yet they have not won a domestic title since 1997.
As the years piled on to their no championship streak, a non-starter for one of the premier clubs in the league, they made three finals in four tournaments in 2008 and 2009. They lost them all.
(Mexico has an odd system in the top flight. We play two short tournaments a year where the top eight teams advance to a playoff to determine the champion, some people like it, some people don’t. I don’t)
They made another final in 2013, where they led their biggest rivals Club America during the entirety of the tie, from minute 19 of the first leg up until minute 89 of the second leg to be exact. They were two goals ahead on aggregate, it was almost a certainty that they were finally going to put an end to their drought, their visiting fans were getting louder and play by play analysts were starting to wax poetic about the team that was finally going to get back to their rightful place as an elite Mexican squad.
With all of that going on, Club America scored in minute 89th to bring the aggregate to within one. And then it happened, their fans grew quieter, the players started to get tighter, they were giving away corner kicks and making bad mistakes on defense. Suddenly the 16-year-old drought and the three lost finals in four years started to make their presence felt, like a ghost, you could feel it even if you couldn’t see it. Four minutes later, Club America’s goalkeeper (!!!) headed a ball towards goal that got deflected by a Cruz Azul player.
(Here is the video of the goal, it’s kind of a spectacular moment even if you don’t care about the teams involved.)
I don’t need to tell you what happened afterwards, after going to overtime, they lost in the penalty shootout. But really, they could have called it right then, when they blew a two-goal aggregate lead in essentially five minutes of game time, we all knew they were toast. It was only a matter of time.
Now it is a common expression in Mexico to use the term “CruzAzulear” which has no literal translation, but it does have a meaning that is quite easy to translate.
They still haven’t won a domestic title.
I bring this up because, even though Tottenham was still dominating and had absolutely everything in hand to win this match, the moment Higuain scored Juventus’ first goal, you could tell.
You could see the fans get a bit restless, you could see the players get tight. Suddenly, the experience of Juventus started to show. Suddenly, the fact that Juventus had been there before and done that before, the fact that they had been to two Champions League finals in three years, that Juventus was a perennial champion with players used to the bright lights was a factor.
Tottenham kept the press, when they should have probably laid back a bit and hold. Taking advantage of that press, Higuain served a beautiful assist that freed up Dybala to run by his lonesome against Hugo Lloris.
This is not to say that Tottenham doesn’t have a bright future. You could argue that they were the superior side during most of the tie. If they manage to hold on to their core during the next transfer window and add a couple more pieces they will be a tough team that can beat anybody on any given day.
And not to take anything away from Juventus and Max Allegri. Allegri saw that his team was in trouble, adjusted and ended up outcoaching Mauricio Pochettino in the second half.
(Stephan Lichsteiner and Kwadwo Asamoah, gamebreakers)
But on this tie, the shirts still had an extra weight, experience still made the difference. You can dominate the blue-blood team for most of a match, but the minute you give them an inch, they take a mile. They are ruthless.
Juventus struggled, played badly and they should be concerned by how terrible they looked for long stretches of the tie, especially when Tottenham pressed which still gives them a lot of trouble. Yet, they are still one of the traditional powers. They are still ruthless.
And at the end of the day they got the result.
The old horse lives to run another day.