Tottenham show they belong in the Champions League with draw at Real
MADRID -- There is usually plenty of swagger about the Santiago Bernabeu on Champions League nights, but it is not often projected by the visiting team. Yet Tottenham Hotspur were every bit as assured and confident as 12-time European champions Real Madrid during Tuesday's 1-1 draw, a result that keeps Mauricio Pochettino's young team level at the top of Group H ahead of next month's return fixture at Wembley.
Although the record books will show a 1-1 draw that extended Real's nearly eight-year unbeaten record at home in the Champions League, the scoreline does not tell the full story of Tottenham's coming of age in the Bernabeu.
"We are happy," said Spurs forward Harry Kane. "We played well and made it tough for Real. A point at the Bernabeu -- you would take that every day of the week.
"It shows how far we have come as a team, and it puts us in a great position. We play them again in a fortnight, but this result shows we can handle it at this level."
For Real, it was something of an off-night, one of those occasions on which they could have won handsomely but for the heroic goalkeeping of Spurs captain Hugo Lloris. But while Spurs rode their luck at times, they also had their moments, notably when Kane was denied a 71st-minute goal by a crucial Keylor Navas save.
Spurs may have spent plenty of time under the cosh, but Pochettino's players never looked as though they would buckle or cave in. They were playing in the Bernabeu but held their nerve and looked totally at home on the grand stage. And that is the difference between the Tottenham of this season and the one which fell at the first hurdle in the Champions League a year ago.
Last season, despite finding themselves in a group devoid of genuine Champions League pedigree alongside Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow, Spurs crashed out and spiralled into the Europa League after taking just one point from four games against Monaco and Leverkusen. It was more stumble than swagger last season, but Pochettino and his players have learned from the experience and grown as a result of it.
Just as Sir Alex Ferguson's young Manchester United stars heeded the lessons of their early failures in the Champions League during the mid-1990s before feeling at home in the competition, Spurs now seem to have found their feet among the elite. And there is no greater yardstick in this competition than Real, the reigning champions who have grown accustomed to brushing teams aside (especially at the Bernabeu) in the group stages.
Prior to this game, Real had won 21 and drawn two of their home games in the group stage since their last defeat in 2009, and the two draws were against Borussia Dortmund, so Tottenham's point should not be dismissed as insignificant. Pochettino deserves credit for being bold enough to play with three centre-halves, just behind the impressive youngster Harry Winks, and with Fernando Llorente playing off Kane up front. It was an unexpected approach against Real.
"I knew [the media] would be surprised about the starting XI," Pochettino said. "But it is important to find different ways to play, be flexible and surprise your opponent.
"We can play with three or four at the back, one striker or two strikers. We are very flexible."
This was no "parking the bus" exercise by the Spurs manager, but a tactical plan is only as reliable as the players charged with making it work, and Pochettino's team did not take a false step, with the coach admitting that it was "not just tactics, because mental level is fundamental in a game like this."
Yes, Real went close with numerous chances. Cristiano Ronaldo hit the post, Karim Benzema missed a clear chance and Isco forced a save from Lloris, but no team gets away without a severe examination at the Bernabeu. Yet Tottenham's courage to hit Real on the counterattack highlighted their confidence under Pochettino, and they were more than prepared to go toe-to-toe with Zinedine Zidane's team, despite the risks that come with that approach.
Real had 20 attempts on goal, but Spurs had 11. Real had nine corners, but Spurs had eight. They gave as good as they got. Lloris may have pulled off a wonder save to keep out Benzema's second-half header, but Navas was also forced to do the same to deny Kane with his powerful header on 19 minutes. And with Borussia Dortmund surprisingly failing to defeat APOEL Nicosia in Cyprus, Spurs go into the home game against Real on Nov. 1 knowing that a victory at Wembley will give them a firm grip on the top spot and the chance to qualify for the knockout stages as group winners.
It is such a different story from a year ago, when the Champions League chewed Spurs up and spat them out. But now, they are cruising along, level with Real and with the prospect of welcoming Dele Alli back into the team next month following the completion of his three-match European suspension.
Ultimately, Tottenham's swagger is not misplaced. They know they are a team on the up.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_