Christian Eriksen celebrates his equalizer against Juventus in the first leg of Tottenham’s Champions League Round of 16 tie. (Getty)
Sometimes it’s easy to forget that for as long as this Tottenham Hotspur team has been together, much of its core is still really young. Of its 11 starters in the resumption of the Champions League on Tuesday, when the Londoners traveled to Turin for their first leg with Juventus in the round of 16, eight were 25 or younger.
That is, in part, why Spurs have been able to keep such a talented core together longer than you might have expected. Tottenham, after all, isn’t quite in England’s upper echelon of clubs, and refuses to pay the kind of salaries that will ensure the retention of its true superstars in the long term.
But this jazzy young team – anchored by Belgian veterans Jan Vertonghen and Moussa Dembele, both aged 30, to hold down the defense and midfield, respectively – has hung around partly because it was bought and developed at an early age, before the lure of the truly big money from the elite clubs became too strong.
The trouble with younger teams, however, can be a kind of naivete that is exploited in scenarios exactly such as this one. When facing a veteran side of grizzled Italian champions away from home, like, say, Juventus.
Tottenham delivered a fairly jaw-dropping performance on Italian soil, where success is hard-won for any team. It dominated its hosts, who reached the Champions League final for a second time in three years last season. It dominated Italy’s most successful club where that club is usually imperious. From the 10th minute or so until the very end, Spurs were in control.
It’s just that in those first nine minutes, Juve twice capitalized on mental mistakes by Tottenham. From there, an impressive fightback by Spurs made it a 2-2 tie – in spite of a missed Juve penalty. That gave Mauricio Pochettino’s side the substantial benefit of the away goals in the second leg, but it was still a meager yield for a phenomenal night’s work.
Just 72 seconds in, Juve scored the second-fastest goal in its Champions League history. On a deep free kick, Miralem Pjanic chipped a ball through the inattentive back line and into the path of Gonzalo Higuain. The Argentine found a pocket of space, vacated by Dele Alli and Ben Davies, and volleyed the pass right at goal and past Hugo Lloris.
A short while later, Davies didn’t see Federico Bernardeschi cutting inside as a cross landed between them in the box. The Welsh defender, poorly positioned to read the play, chopped Bernardeschi down for a penalty. Higuain snuck it past Lloris, who got a fair few fingers to it, from the spot.
It seemed that before this series had well and truly begun, Tottenham had already frittered away its first run to the Champions League knockout stages since 2011. And infuriatingly to Spurs fans, it came on the back of a thoroughly mature and professional 1-0 victory over arch-rivals Arsenal on Saturday.
But Tottenham woke up and seized the momentum and total control. In the 17th minute, Harry Kane was clipped on his heel in the box but denied a rightful penalty. Then, Christian Eriksen picked Kane out of the pack with a cross, but the prolific striker put his header too close to Gianluigi Buffon from point-blank range and the 40-year-old legend parried him.
Before the first half was up, Kane narrowed the deficit. He was played in by Alli on a perfectly-timed run. Kane, one of the most coveted strikers in Europe, then rounded Buffon and rolled the ball into the empty net with his left foot.
Still, Juve had chances to put the game away before halftime. Once, Pjanic and Higuain scampered away on a break and passed back and forth until Higuain zipped his finish just wide. On the brink of halftime, Douglas Costa blasted past Davinson Sanchez and Serge Aurier in the box. The latter scythed the Juve speedster down in a last-ditch attempt to stop him, even though there were plenty of teammates left to defend the cutback. Penalty.
But Higuain hammered the spot kick off the crossbar – because leave it to Higuain to ultimately be a disappointment in a game where he scored a brace.
Spurs have been really good except for when they’ve occasionally brought everlasting shame to their families
— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) February 13, 2018
In the second act, Lloris kept Spurs in the game with a strong save on a low Bernardeschi shot. Then, on the ensuing corner, Mario Mandzukic had a free header right at the French goalkeeper after shaking off the bumbling Aurier.
But Spurs stayed in it. And in the 70th minute, Eriksen zipped in a free kick from the top of the box. It skidded past the wall and right at Buffon, but the veteran goalkeeper misread the shot and let the ball skip past him in an unusual error.
And so Tottenham salvaged a tie and a heartening performance from a desperation-inducing beginning. All in all, a draw with multiple goals is hardly a poor outcome from a knockout game in Turin. Yet the way Spurs played, it still feels like a disappointment.
Nonetheless, it makes them the favorites in North London on March 7. That is, if Tottenham can overcome its own youth again.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.