I woke up suddenly early this morning, around 3am. A little disoriented and for a brief few seconds no recollection of anything other than the dream I had just lost. Then it hit me like a truck running over a rabbit caught in its headlights. That other dream, my memory returning, also lost. I did reach out to see if there was a white handkerchief I could use to wave despondently across my face to wipe away a tear. Instead I went back to burying my head under the pillow and asking myself...what if what if, as I lost consciousness (always with the losing) once more and fell back into what might as well have been a nightmare.
In all the match previews for our first leg visit to the Santiago Bernabéu, including mine, very few entertained the eventuality of what was witnessed on the night.
I cited we needed to stand tall, be strong. The usual pre-match battle cry dressed up with belief and desire with a dab of focus thrown in for good measure. It was always going to be about us finding out whether we could compete against a heavy weight side managed by heavy weight tactician.
Some quotes from my match preview:
“Jose knows his side won't be able to steam-roll us like the various assortments of Spanish fodder they dismantle week in week out”
That’s exactly what they did.
“We are not expected to win. We're not expected to beat them over the two games. So the pressure is on them. Leaving us to play without fear. Because to do otherwise would be regretful”
We found ourselves on the back foot before the game even kicked off with Lennon dropping out of the starting eleven due to, I’m not sure what. Illness according to Redknapp.
“I hope our defence retain unity.
I hope Bale has 'a game'.
I hope vdV galvanises his team mates on his return to his former club.
I hope Modric dictates.
I hope our players show resounding mental strength.
I hope Harry gets one over Jose”
Deliciously ironic if you’re a Madridista. The sudden change and resulting substitution that saw Jenas enter the field of play and then stupidity and lack of composure in the opening quarter of an hour was the catalyst for a nailed on defeat.
Apart from one of the goals, the rest were poorly defended. vdV sacrificed at half-time. Modric lost thanks to the constraints of seeing Crouch red-carded. Sure, we showed mental strength. Not so much in the way we knee-jerked and allowed us to be consumed by the occasion and subsequent reshaping. But the way we held it together, especially by going in at half-time at 1-0 was encouraging damage limitation.
I’m going to avoid any deep analytical break-downs regarding individual performances (some fought, others switched off, relentless pressure too much to handle) along with Harry’s tactical changes and the Peter Crouch kung-fu episodes. And not forgetting the forgotten fundamentals when failing to defend the two headed goals.
I'm going to avoid mainly because if you take a step back and remind yourself of the opposition and their quality and then admit they hardly shifted out of second gear – you’ll be grateful it was only the four goals conceded. There was no plan b. Madrid knew they would win, and picked us off patiently with all the time in the world to do just that. All things considered (36 Madrid shots on goal?) we might have escaped with a 2-0 or 3-0 which would still have had us dreaming. What with us being that way inclined.
Alas, back to harsh reality...
Ten men up against Real Madrid, away from home, having the absolute **** pressed out of us for practically the entirety of the match. These are not excuses; it’s just statement of fact. It’s horrible I know, to admit you’re being outclassed regardless of the way we surrendered any possibility of making a fight out of it. With eleven men, we might have scored an away goal. We’d have retained shape, cohesiveness. Instead we struggled to keep the ball with not a second allowed for us to catch our breath and try to salvage offensive movement rather than chasing shadows. Probably would have retained the ball, recycled possession effectively and had pockets of Lilywhite aggression. I guess, as one or two of you have already pointed out, it’s a nice to get-out clause to have.
That’s to be able to imagine that teasing ‘what if’ rather than say losing 4-0 with no caveats in sight. We worked hard because we had no other option to defend, we made mistakes, and we were duly punished for it. It’s happened to one or two teams in the past, taken to school. Lesson learnt. Then continued their progress next time round. Have to hope we won’t need to wait too long for that next time.
Let’s also respect the other perspective, the one we tend to ignore because we're so Spurscentric. As much as we’d have wanted to prolong the adventure, the other team – they had their own agenda. Fuelled by the fact they are second best to the best team in the world and finding themselves with the opportunity of meeting them in the next round what with personal redemption for all involved at Madrid and an obsession to avoid seasoned disappointment in the Champions League. It’s not always in our hands. As much as we’d like to believe it to be. Toe to toe, eleven against eleven might have been equally as painful.
Nothing to be ashamed of Spurs. But equally 'okay' for all of us to be disappointed as the return fixture is practically redundant what with the immediate (it’s been there all season tbh) urgency to reclaim a top four place with a handful of games left. Massive task for manager and players to react positively and not let the season fade away.
For the return game, do we rest our players or do we live for the moment once more? Home territory with the noise of the Lane in the stands, accompanied by a swan song of swagger out on the pitch? It would be rude not to oblige.
It’s been a majestic campaign in the only way we know how to journey through one. Ups, downs and shrugs. We were not meant to finish top of our group or knock out AC Milan. We did. And along the way created some cracking memories. There's room for one more, even if it's only a footnote.