As Dele Alli fired the ball into an empty net, the Tottenham fans cheered wildly. They knew the goal would be disallowed – they heard the referee blow his whistle moments before – but they celebrated nonetheless. After the 45 error-strewn, panicky and downright woeful minutes they had witnessed, few could blame them.
In truth, the Wembley crowd simply wanted to cheer something. Anything. Tottenham had just laboured their way through a first half against Bayer Leverkusen littered with misplaced passes, defensive anxiety and general nervousness, all of which was played out to a backing track of groans from an increasingly agitated support.
“They look like a bunch of strangers,” was Rio Ferdinand’s damning half-time verdict. It was a generous assessment. Strangers at least share a passing glance or a cursory nod; these players looked either scared or revolted at the sight of one another. Was this really some of the best the Premier League has to offer?
Many expected the hosts to improve in the second half. After all, Mauricio Pochettino must have demanded more from his charges. But what followed was more fear, more fright, more ineptitude. Those half-time groans would become fully-fledged boos by the final whistle, as Leverkusen secured a 1-0 victory which did them a disservice.
At the heart of it was Moussa Sissoko. The Frenchman spent most of his Newcastle career informing the world of his aspirations of playing in Europe’s premier competition. “I hope to play in the Champions League one day,” he said in October of last year. “I always want it, but everything is about timing. For now, I do not play in it, but I’m patient. I await my hour calmly,” followed in December. He even explained that the chance to feature in the competition was “one of the reasons” he moved to White Hart Lane in the summer. This was his opportunity to show everyone just what they had been missing.
This was Sissoko’s night, his chance to show why Tottenham spent £30million on him in the summer. Wembley was his stage, but he stumbled over his own feet and landed flat on his face before the curtain had even been pulled back. He registered one shot, but it was off target. He did not create a goalscoring opportunity. His passing accuracy of 60% was the worst of any Spurs player. He won just 52.4% of his duels. He lost possession on 31 occasions – that is an average of once every three minutes.
To offer the weakest of defences, his teammates were hardly any better. Kyle Walker was dreadful, his incompetence matched only by Ben Davies on the opposite flank. Victor Wanyama was far from a calming influence in midfield, nor was Mousa Dembele during his brief spell. Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Heung-min Son looked disjointed and bereft of ideas going forward. Even Hugo Lloris, Eric Dier and Jan Vertonghen, so reliable a trio last season, looked riddled with doubt.
I was dismissed earlier this week for expressing doubts over Tottenham’s form. Unbeaten they may be in the Premier League, but Wednesday represented their sixth game without a victory – and they have failed to score more than once in that sequence. It is a worrying trend, and a meeting with Arsenal on Sunday offers little reprieve.
Sissoko will miss that game through suspension due to his own stupidity, which makes this performance even harder to swallow. For a man who has made no attempt to disguise his desire to play in Europe, this was nothing short of embarrassing. The 27-year-old feels as though he belongs here, in this competition, against the best players on the continent. Never mind the Champions League, he would struggle to get a game in the Championship with former club Newcastle on this evidence.