When Christian Eriksen stood over the free-kick Juventus hearts fluttered, and for good reason. The Tottenham playmaker had been irrepressible, lifting his team from an early crash that left them trailing by two goals inside nine minutes and driving them forward with zip and precision.
It was the 72nd minute, Tottenham were alive thanks to yet another Harry Kane goal and Eriksen’s set-piece opportunity was central, a little under 25 yards out. What he did next had Tottenham’s hopes soaring and produced a result that showed they belong at this rarefied level.
Eriksen’s strike was hard and low and it was directed at Gianluigi Buffon’s right-hand post. The goalkeeper had expected the flipper over the wall towards the other corner. Wrong-footed, the Juventus great could not keep it out and it is Tottenham, rather than the Italian champions, who have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Juventus had entered the tie having conceded one goal in 16 matches. The last time they shipped two at home was more than a year ago. But after the nightmarish start Tottenham played with verve and personality. They hogged the ball and, when Mauricio Pochettino said his team had dominated the tie after the second Juventus goal, nobody was arguing.
Eriksen has been chased by Juventus and he showed them what they missed while he was ably supported by Mousa Dembélé in a deeper midfield role. Dembélé’s combination of sauntering pace, immense strength and velcro touch is always a delight. He helped to set the tone. Juventus were forced back.
Eriksen started the move for Kane’s goal, with Dele Alli supplying the assist, and there was a certain inevitability about his free-kick conversion. Pochettino said the Dane was a symbol of his managerial tenure, of the season-on-season improvement and greater maturity. “Christian represents our philosophy,” Pochettino said.
Gonzalo Higuaín scored Juventus’s goals – the first a classic volley, the second a penalty – but he also missed from the spot in first-half stoppage-time. That was a turning point, a moment of fortune for Tottenham but, make no mistake, this was a richly deserved result for the visitors.
Juventus’s start had been blistering and Tottenham felt the panic rising after only eight minutes when Ben Davies, having lost his bearings, lunged to clear a high ball. He had not felt Federico Bernardeschi on his blind side and he cleaned him out. Hugo Lloris got his fingertips to Higuaín’s penalty but could not keep it out.
That was 2-0. The opening goal had come after 74 seconds and it was a horrible defensive breakdown from Tottenham’s point of view. They allowed Higuaín to run off Alli and on to Miralem Pjanic’s beautifully disguised free-kick – away from the main pack on the other side of the area. Higuaín had plenty to do but he watched the ball drop over his shoulder before executing the volley back across Lloris. The power and technique were irresistible.
Tottenham faced the ultimate test of their character. They passed it in glorious style. With Eriksen probing for the killer ball and delivering more than a few, they felt their confidence rise. Dembélé brought further assurance while Kane looked menacing, although he was guilty of going to ground inside the area too easily on 17 minutes under Medhi Benatia’s light challenge.
The chances came. From Eriksen’s chipped ball Kane was all alone and should have buried the header. Instead he put it too close to Buffon who saved. Buffon also tipped a low shot from Kane past the far post. Kane’s goal had been advertised and it followed a burst of trademark Tottenham pressing. Eriksen dispossessed Giorgio Chiellini and in a flash Alli had sent Kane through. He calmly rounded Buffon before rolling the ball into the unguarded net.
Eriksen tested Buffon from distance but the warning signs were also there for Tottenham on the counter-attack. Higuaín worked one on the half-hour with Pjanic and, when he cut inside, he looked odds-on to score. But his shot flashed wide.
Serge Aurier threatened Tottenham’s equilibrium with a reckless penalty-area challenge on Douglas Costa, who was simply too quick for him. It was another straightforward decision for the referee, Felix Brych, but this time Higuaín’s sights were scrambled. His penalty rattled the crossbar.
Pochettino had preferred Erik Lamela to Son Heung-min on the left in search of greater steel. Tottenham showed it throughout the team although Davinson Sánchez and Aurier endured wobbly moments. It was Eriksen through whom they played and he had one of those games that makes it clear why he is adored by the club’s support.
The second half was tighter, more controlled. Aurier was booked for a foul on Alex Sandro to incur a suspension for the second leg on 7 March and the openings were more scarce. Bernardeschi extended Lloris while Mario Mandzukic headed straight at the Tottenham goalkeeper. Enter Eriksen. Tottenham’s Champions League dream continues to bubble.