When Christian Eriksen stood over the free-kick Juventus hearts fluttered, and for good reason. The Tottenham playmaker had been irrepressible, lifting his team from an early crash that left them trailing by two goals, driving them forward with his zip and precision.
It was the 72nd minute, Tottenham were alive thanks to yet another Harry Kane strike and Eriksen’s set-piece opportunity was central, a little under 25 yards out. What he did next had Tottenham’s hopes soaring and fired a result that showed they belong at this rarefied level.
Eriksen’s strike was hard and low and it was directed at Gianluigi Buffon’s right-hand post. The goalkeeper had expected the flipper over the wall towards the other corner. Wrong-footed, the Juventus great could not keep it out. It is Tottenham, rather than the Italian champions, who have one foot in the Champions League quarter-finals.
Juventus had entered the tie having conceded only one goal in 16 matches. The last time they shipped two at home was more than a year ago. But after the nightmarish start Tottenham played with verve and personality. Eriksen has previously been chased by Juventus and he showed them what they missed out on. He started the move for Kane’s goal and there was a certain inevitability about his free-kick conversion.
Juventus’s regrets centred upon a Gonzalo Higuaín’s penalty miss in first-half stoppage-time but, make no mistake, this was a richly deserved result for Tottenham. Higuaín scored both his team’s goals but the enduring images of the evening were provided by Eriksen.
It was a seismic occasion for Tottenham – their first Champions League knock-out tie since February 2011 when they had beaten Massimiliano Allegri’s Milan in Milan, thanks to a Peter Crouch goal. They had spent the intervening years dreaming of a return to this stage, pouring everything they had into getting there. The weight of the dreams was heavy.
Juventus’s start was blistering and Tottenham could feel the panic rising after only eight minutes when Ben Davies, having lost his bearings, lunged to clear a high ball. He had not felt Federico Bernardeschi on his blind side. The Juventus winger got there first and what happened next seemed to unfold in slow motion. Davies took out Bernardeschi and the referee, Felix Brych, pointed to the spot. He also booked Davies. Hugo Lloris got his fingertips to Higuaín’s penalty but he could not keep it out.
That was 2-0. The opening goal had come after 74 seconds and it was a horrible defensive breakdown from the Tottenham point of view. They allowed Higuaín to run off Dele Alli and on to Miralem Pjanic’s beautifully disguised free-kick, away from the main pack on the other side of the area. Higuaín still had plenty to do but he allowed the ball to drop over his shoulder before executing the volley back across Lloris. The power and technique were irresistible.
Tottenham were down but not out and they showed tremendous fortitude to come back into it. With Eriksen to the fore, probing for the killer ball and delivering more than a few, they felt their confidence levels rise. Kane, too, looked menacing although he was guilty of going to ground inside the area too easily on 17 minutes under Medhi Benatia’s light challenge.
The chances started to come for the visitors. From Eriksen’s chipped ball Kane was all alone and he had to bury the header. Instead he put it too close to Gianluigi Buffon, who saved. Buffon also tipped a low Kane shot past the far post.
Tottenham deserved the goal that halved the deficit and it followed trademark high pressing. It was Eriksen that dispossessed Giorgio Chiellini and, in a flash, Alli had sent Kane scurrying through. He calmly rounded Buffon before rolling home a precious away goal.
Eriksen tested Buffon from distance but the warning signs were also there on the counter-attack. Higuaín worked one on the half hour with Pjanic and when he cut inside he looked odds-on to score. But his shot flashed wide. The first-half hat-trick would not come for Higuaín and the missed penalty was the low point for him. Douglas Costa was too quick for Serge Aurier, who diving into a reckless tackle. It was another clear spot kick. This time Higuaín rattled the crossbar.
Mauricio Pochettino had preferred Erik Lamela to Son Heung-min on the left in a bid for greater steel. Tottenham showed it throughout the team, although Davinson Sánchez and Aurier endured wobbly moments. It was Eriksen through whom Tottenham played and he had one of those games that makes it clear why he is adored by the club’s support.
The second half was tighter, more controlled. Aurier was booked for a foul on Alex Sandro to incur a suspension for the second leg and the openings were more scarce. Bernardeschi extended Lloris while Mario Mandzukic headed straight at the Tottenham goalkeeper. Enter Eriksen. For Tottenham the Champions League dream continues to bubble.