Dortmund vs Tottenham: Run of poor results fertilises familiar fatalism ahead of apparent dead rubber

Jonathan Liew
The Independent

The good news for Spurs is that we’ve been here before. The bad news is that we’ve been here before. A stirring finish at Wembley three weeks ago has put them in almost total control of their Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund. They will step out at Signal Iduna Park on Tuesday night with a 3-0 head-start, and everybody expecting them to progress. And yet for Mauricio Pochettino’s bold but fragile side, that is quite often where trouble begins.

It seemed almost inconceivable, amid the euphoria of Tottenham’s two late goals in the home leg, that they would go into this game with anything less than absolute confidence. And yet, a run of two defeats and a draw since that game (and even the draw was a lucky escape against Arsenal) has fertilised a familiar fatalism at a club where the line between mastery and misadventure often feels maddeningly fine. What if Dortmund go 2-0 up inside 15 minutes? What then? Surely even Spurs can’t mess this one up. Surely. Surely?

Well, they certainly can, if history is any guide. Both Manchester clubs will happily remind you that a 3-0 deficit against Tottenham is no guarantee of anything (Tottenham 3-5 Manchester United, 2001; Tottenham 3-4 Manchester City, 2004). And even in more recent times, Tottenham have surrendered three-goal leads with outstanding alacrity.

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There was the Europa League last-16 tie against Inter Milan in 2013, when a 3-0 win in the home leg somehow turned into a 4-1 defeat at the San Siro, with Emmanuel Adebayor scoring the critical away goal in extra time. Then there was the League Cup semi-final of 2009, when - against Championship side Burnley - Spurs managed to blow a 4-1 lead at Turf Moor, losing 3-0 in 90 minutes (had the away goals rule been in place, they would have been eliminated) and somehow scrambling through via Roman Pavlyuchenko goal in the 118th minute.

And just in case you think this sort of comic brittleness pre-dates Pochettino, then under his tenure Tottenham have been prone to the odd extremely error-prone start in Europe. Indeed, in each of their last three European campaigns Tottenham team have found themselves 2-0 down within half an hour: against Monaco in 2016-17, at Juventus last season, and at home to Barcelona last autumn.

Each time, the formula has been the same: a slightly ponderous opening, a couple of nervy early errors, and suddenly the opposition all over them. The style in which Pochettino’s Tottenham tend to start - with plenty of passing around the back as they get settled - leaves them extremely vulnerable to a single mistake, as fresh opposition sides press with them with full intensity. They were arguably fortunate to qualify from the group phase after going behind in four of their six games.

For Philippe Coutinho or Bernardo Silva, read Jadon Sancho or Marco Reus this time round. “We have played many games in this stadium where we've written history and we are in a position to achieve the impossible,” Reus said on Monday. “We need to reach our peak, and score the goals in the right moment. But we believe in ourselves.”

You can certainly see it happening. But of course, that doesn’t mean it will. And with the Eric Dier, Dele Alli and possibly Harry Winks leaving a gaping chasm in the centre of midfield, perhaps Tottenham will approach this game with a little more circumspection than usual: letting Harry Kane and Son Heung-Min doing the bulk of the work in the final third, keeping their shape and forcing Dortmund to over-commit.

The problem is that Dortmund’s job, while formidable, is the simpler of the two. And some of Tottenham's best football this season has come when they have been forced to chase the game, to let loose, to take off the handbrake and play with abandon: against Inter at Wembley, 1-0 down in the Camp Nou against Barcelona, in numerous late showings in the Premier League this season. Preserving a lead, on the other hand, exercises different mental muscles: patience, judgment, game management, maturity. These are the qualities that Spurs have so often lacked in the past. Whether or not they can locate them now will go a long way to determining whether they have what it takes to make a genuine dent in this competition.

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