Using the word ‘character’ about a football team always jars a little; how can character be collective? How can a whole team of players display a particular personality trait? But if ever a team thinks and acts as one it is this magnificently united Tottenham team. As one they panicked for ten minutes and then as one they were wonderful for the next 80, with only Serge Aurier missing the memo and indulging in an entirely predictable panic reprise. When other teams have and would collapse again, Tottenham truly showed character.
Let’s not pretend those opening ten minutes in Turin were anything less than disastrous. They slept for Gonzalo Higuain’s exquisite first and then gifted him a second as Ben Davies simultaneously lost his man and his spatial awareness. Was this the reality check? Was this the reminder that Tottenham – for all their irresistible potential – still struggle against elite teams away from home? Would Juventus score three, four or five? Would this be the night that another north London team collapsed in a European last-16 tie?
No, no, no, no – this instead was the night that Tottenham stared embarrassing devastation in the face, lifted their heads, kept the ball at their feet and made the Juventus players, fans, management and media panic even when 2-0 ahead. When they should have been cruising, safe in the knowledge that they had not conceded at home in over three months and not at all in 2018, they were instead cowed. It defies logic but at 2-0 down, Tottenham did not look or feel inferior; Mauricio Pochettino has quite rightly made them believe that they belong in this illustrious company. Neither dark nor little horses but thoroughbreds.
At this same stage last season Arsenal were taken apart 5-1 by Bayern Munich and it would have been incredibly easy for Tottenham to succumb to the same fate after the very worst of all starts. But this is a Tottenham side of much greater substance, untainted by failure even though they have not achieved any tangible success. Not only do they have some wonderful players, they also boast that most elusive of qualities – mental strength.
That mental strength at least in part comes from belief in the sheer brilliance of some of their number, particularly Harry Kane, Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele. They are simply among the best in Europe in their positions when on form. Kane’s finish was sublime but his hold-up play matched that finish; Eriksen was a veritable joy to watch, his free-kick apt reward for a near-faultless performance; Dembele is a phenomenon when in this form, somehow combining control with strength as the ball, the match and seemingly time itself acquiesces to his demands.
Losing 2-1 would have been a credible result that proved Tottenham can survive in such heady company, but deservedly drawing 2-2 is an incredible result that proves Tottenham can thrive in such heady company. Hindsight can be used to denigrate their success in Madrid, but this one is untouchable. This one is undeniable. They went to Turin, stared potential humiliation in the face and emerged as equals. That takes character.