Tottenham tame Juventus but FA Cup represents best chance for trophy
Tottenham are still buzzing after Tuesday night's performance against Juventus in the Champions League. After going two goals down due to some sloppy defending inside the first nine minutes, Spurs dominated the remaining 80.
The statistics don't lie. Against the Italian champions who had been Champions League finalists in two of the last three seasons, Spurs had nearly 70 percent of the possession while playing away from home. No team had done that to Juventus in Turin in living memory. Spurs also managed to score two goals against a Juve side that hadn't conceded a single goal in 15 games. Indeed, this was the first time that the home team had ever failed to win after taking a two goal lead since they moved to the new Allianz stadium in September 2011.
But the statistics don't tell the complete story. They don't show how Mousa Dembele took charge of the midfield to deliver one of his best ever performances in a Spurs shirt. Earlier in the season, the Belgian had looked tired and out of sorts and some feared that age had caught up with him. No one is saying that any more.
Most of all, the stats don't show the sheer collective power of will that brought the team together. Even last year, if Spurs had gone 2-0 down so early in the game there would have been no coming back. Indeed, many fans feared that heads would go down and that Tottenham could end up losing by four or five.
But Spurs have toughened up considerably in their fourth year under Mauricio Pochettino. They now believe they can get a result from games they had previously given up as lost causes. There was nothing lucky about Tottenham pegging Juventus back to 2-2. The team didn't sneak a couple of goals against the run of play. They created chances consistently by driving holes through one of the best defences in European football and could conceivably have gone on to win the game.
This was one of the most impressive displays by Spurs in the past 50 years. One that will have been noted by all the other teams in Europe. Provided that Tottenham can complete the job at Wembley in just under three weeks' time, Spurs will be high on the list the remaining clubs in the competition will want to avoid.
Even more satisfying for Pochettino is that he knows there is very obvious room for improvement. As against Liverpool in their previous away fixture, Spurs started far too slowly and were caught cold. That has to stop. The manager will also know that the one mistake he made in selection was playing Serge Aurier ahead of Kieran Trippier.
Aurier may show promise but he is also proving to be a desperately slow learner. He consistently shows poor judgment and gave away a needless penalty seconds before the break. As if that wasn't bad enough, he made another stupid tackle minutes into the second half and deservedly picked up a yellow card, putting himself and the team under unnecessary pressure for the rest of the game. The good news for all concerned is that Aurier is suspended for the second leg, meaning Trippier will have to play. Spurs will be the stronger for it.
From the sublime to ... Rochdale. Having successfully come through a tough run of games against Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool and Juventus, Spurs now travel to Spotland on Sunday for their FA Cup fifth round tie. It is perhaps inevitable the intensity levels may drop but Pochettino needs to impress on his side the seriousness of this game. For all the glamour of the Champions League, the FA Cup represents Tottenham's best hope of a trophy this season. And while silverware isn't the only benchmark of success, it would certainly help to keep the squad together for the new season in the new stadium.
Pochettino can also go into this match with a strong starting XI. After Sunday, Spurs' next game is away to Crystal Palace eight days later so there will be plenty of time for the players to recover. Some changes are inevitable. Danny Rose and Trippier are certain to come in as full-backs, while Harry Winks will almost certainly play in midfield.
Of most interest, though, will be the return of Toby Alderweireld. Relations between the Belgian defender and the manager have not been the most cordial since Alderweireld was omitted from both the squad for Arsenal and Juventus after playing a full 90 minutes against Newport County.
Pochettino has since tried to build bridges by saying he only had the player's best interests at heart, but the defender has not been completely mollified.
By sending out a near enough first choice team against Rochdale, Pochettino can not only hope to avoid the pitfall of an unwanted replay, he can show Alderweireld he is central to his plans. As indeed he ought to be. Although Davinson Sanchez has provided useful cover, he has yet to forge the same level of understanding with Jan Vertonghen as Alderweireld. Rochdale could be the first step on the road back to redemption.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.