Champions League novices Tottenham set for test vs. Juventus' old heads
TURIN, Italy -- It would be overlooking the importance of 30-somethings like Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen and Mousa Dembele to suggest that Tottenham's Champions League round-of-16 encounter with Juventus is nothing less than a European version of men against boys, but Mauricio Pochettino's young team will certainly feel like the new kids on the block in Tuesday's first leg.
So much for Juventus being nicknamed "The Old Lady"; Massimiliano Allegri's team are the competition's old men and this tie will tell whether seasoned experience and know-how counts for more than youthful exuberance and naivety.
Sir Alex Ferguson used Marcelo Lippi's great Juventus team of the mid-1990s as the benchmark for his developing Manchester United side, claiming that the experience of taking on Zinedine Zidane, Alessandro del Piero and Didier Deschamps fast-tracked the team of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes et al to the glory of the Treble in 1999.
There were plenty of false steps by Ferguson's young stars along the way, including three defeats in four games against Juve between 1996 and 1997. However, United ultimately learned lessons from their schooling and, thanks in part to a Champions League semifinal triumph against their previous nemesis, the rest is history.
Allegri's team is perhaps not at the same level as that of Lippi, but the test facing Pochettino and Spurs is the same as that taken on by Ferguson's United. Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and others face European football royalty and they will end up dumped out with stars in their eyes, or they will take a huge step toward realising their own potential.
"Juventus is a massive club, we cannot compare with Juventus," Pochettino said at his pre-match press conferenceon Monday. "In its history, it has won everything. In the last three season, they played two Champions League finals. Juventus is a great team, one of the best in Europe and they have a lot of experienced players who know what it is to compete in the Champions League."
The Spurs manager added that his club aspires to be at Juve's level.
"We are a young team, we are building a very nice project, new facilities like a training ground and stadium and it is impossible to compare the histories of Juve and Spurs," said Pochettino. "It is our dream to reach Juve's level, but we are going to be competitive tomorrow. We will see how competitive we can be."
Spurs won at home to Real Madrid and drew away to the holders in this season's group stage and go into this tie in strong domestic form, having beaten Man United and Arsenal at home and drawn at Liverpool in the past two weeks. But the tale of the tape remains daunting.
Juventus are unbeaten in 26 European home games, winning 16 of those, and the experience within their squad dwarfs that of Pochettino's players. Gianluigi Buffon has made 113 Champions League appearances, with Gonzalo Higuain (71), Sami Khedira (64) and Giorgio Chiellini (60) also veterans.
A further six players have played more than 40 times; of the Spurs squad, only Lloris (47) and new signing Lucas Moura (38) have played more than 30 games. Indeed, as man in the middle 54 times, even German referee Felix Brych has more experience than the men from North London. But Pochettino is confident that progress made this season, specifically those results vs. Real Madrid, offers proof that Spurs can compete with the two-time European champions
"Yes, it's true," he said. "This season, some performances and some results make us trust in the way we play and there were many positives from this (Real Madrid) game that have helped us achieve what we want. Our belief, our confidence, our form are good. It is step-by-step for this team. When the draw was made for the group stage, the candidates were Madrid and Borussia Dortmund and not much was made of our chances. But we won that stage and now we are here."
Much will rest on the shoulders of the talismanic Kane, who scored six goals in five group-stage games; only Cristiano Ronaldo, with nine, has netted more than the England captain this term. Kane accepts the experience gap, but insists Tottenham can prevail over two legs.
"Not many people expected us to get out of group, but we proved them wrong by finishing top," he said. "So we come here with belief, but still respecting Juve. We believe we can get through. It will be tough, but we can take them to Wembley and get the job done."
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_