Based on logic and statistical odds Tottenham should not have advanced to the Champions League Round of 16.
After starting the group stage with two losses and a draw, Tottenham was at the bottom of their group with only a single point to show for the first three of their six group stage matches. In a group with Inter Milan, PSV Eindhoven, and Barcelona, it seemed Tottenham’s early errors would be too much to come back from.
However, over the next three matches Tottenham found a confidence they had been lacking.
Still, their chances came down to the wire.
At the end of five matches, Tottenham had managed to earn back some lost ground, now with a group stage record of 2-2-1, the same as Inter Milan. Both even had the same goal differential, with Tottenham only having the advantage due to scoring one more goal than Inter.
In the final match of group play, Inter faced last place PSV Eindhoven, while Tottenham had to square off against the undefeated Barcelona.
The day started off poorly for both clubs on the edge of elimination. 21-year-old Barça striker Ousmane Dembélé kicked off Tottenham’s woes, stealing the ball from fellow youngster Tottenham defender Kyle Walker-Peters. Ousamane’s pace was put on display, blasting past Walker-Peters with a long dribble, running into the 18-yard-box box and cutting by diving midfielder Harry Winks, before easily sliding it into the net.
Over in Italy, Inter earned a couple of good chances in the opening minutes, including a header from Ivan Perišić that rattled off the left post. However, their momentum would be crushed just a few minutes later, when PSV striker Hirving “El Chucky” Lozano found a cross with his head at the back post, sending it into an unguarded goal.
With both team’s down, Tottenham was still in position to advance. However, with 18 minutes left in Inter’s match, striker Mauro Icardi gave PSV a header of his own, leaping to reach a high cross, flicking it in past the near post. Now, with the match at 1-1 and Tottenham behind, the Spurs had less than 20 minutes to upset arguably the best club in the world.
Their chance came with just five minutes to play. Striker Harry Kane received the ball in the final third and dribbled it quickly into the left side of the 18-yard-box. Immediately, three Barcelona defenders jumped on him, opening up the middle of the box where Lucas Moura stood unmarked. Kane split the defense, sending a low ball between them straight to Moura, who met the ball with his a gentle tap, the momentum of Kane’s pass sending the ball in for a goal.
Celebration from Tottenham fans at Camp Nou was a sight to be seen. The Spurs had earned a chance to breathe once more, surviving and heading to the next stage.
Tottenham must find a way to avoid the errors that plagued them in the early games of the group stage if they are to stand a chance in the elimination rounds. When the club is at peak performance they can compete with the best, but their inconsistencies could stop them from making a deep run in the tournament.
The first 10 minutes of play each match will be a crucial point of improvement for the club going forward. Throughout their six group stage matches, they were scored on in the first 10 minutes of the match three times. Although they came back to earn a 2-1 win against PSV, their early mistakes against Barcelona led to only a draw and a loss.
On the other end of the 90 minutes, Tottenham struggled to close out matches on multiple occasions. In their opening group stage match, they held a 1-0 lead until the final five minutes, when they let Inter Milan earn two back, conceding the game winning goal two minutes into stoppage time. Against PSV, Tottenham blew a 2-1 lead with three minutes to go after forward Luuk de Jong scored a gentle flick of a goal while wide open just six yards from goal. In both these occasions, Tottenham lost out on potential points from end of match errors. Lionel Messi also scored against them late in their first match against Barcelona, but only to add insult to injury in what ended as a 4-2 loss for the Spurs.
While Tottenham struggled to remain disciplined for a full 90 minutes many times in the group stage, they performed at peak level for spurts and stints throughout each match. Harry Kane has been as efficient as ever, earning four goals in six games. Christian Eriksen has been in top form, scoring twice and serving as a do-it-all midfielder, playing both in attacking and defensive minded positions in various matches.
A highlight from their draw against Barcelona was the return of Danny Rose, who had not played in Champions League since coming off the bench in their first group stage game back in September. Instead of starting Ben Davies, who had started all previous group matches, manager Mauricio Pochettino put Rose in the left back position. The veteran shone throughout, holding his ground against some of the best strikers in the world and pressing hard up the wing. After a couple of underwhelming seasons, this could jump start a new time in Rose’s career.
The Round of 16 draw takes place Monday, December 17, 6:00PM EST. While Tottenham’s next challenge is yet to be determined, they can take the time to simply be thankful for surviving their last one.