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Champions League

Tottenham struggle to take step up in Wembley's unfamiliar surroundings

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Tottenham Hotspur's Belgian midfielder Mousa Dembele (R) walks off the pitch

Image credit: AFP

ByDaniel Harris
15/09/2016 at 08:30 | Updated 15/09/2016 at 09:46

Daniel Harris was at Wembley to see Tottenham's Champions League campaign get off to an inauspicious start against Monaco.

Of the millions of words that exist in the world, very few transcend language, and fewer still transcend emotion. Roughly, you’re talking places with global resonance and a single dominating dimension; specifically, you’re talking Wembley. Only Wembley signifies something so special and so specific as to provoke similar sentiments in everyone, blending history with nostalgia and the public with the personal.

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This is because nowhere but Wembley boasts such a rich tapestry of underwhelming England games and disappointing cup finals; nowhere but Wembley has been demolished for being rubbish, then rebuilt to still be rubbish. New Wembley bears no resemblance to the place where all the history happened, and its designers ignored every principle important for the cultivation of a proper football atmosphere. And yet, and yet, and yet, there’s nowhere quite like it. Wembley still means something.

The difficulty for Spurs is that it needs to mean something different to them than it does to absolutely everyone else; it needs to mean home. In theory, home advantage counts for nothing; the game’s the game, so play or get played. But people being people, they’re prone to undermining both tautology and metaphor with the feeling of feelings, which is why a home is defined not just by presence in it but by memories of it, and they take time to accumulate. So before they took on Monaco, the best they could hope for was a hotel quickie, the worst a dump in someone else’s khazi.

Those tasked with artificially spursing things up did their best, shoving cockerel signage here and twee sayings there, the equivalent of baking biscuits and cooking chicken soup in an uncovered pot. It might engage the senses, but it doesn’t engage the soul.

Tottenham fans outside the stadium before the game

Image credit: Reuters

The Spurs fans seemed generally enthusiastic about their new, er, manor – not that they’ve much choice – and accordingly, there was some sense of occasion. Even so, it took the Champions League music to get things going, and gibbering Gazproms, did they play it loud, rousing the crowd to reciprocate.

And Spurs started well enough, forcing things on principle. But forcing things on principle is not the same as relaxing into them, and once the initial impetus expired, no one quite knew how to maintain momentum.

The longer the first half progressed, the more Spurs looked like what they are: a team yet to establish themselves among the elite, comprised entirely of players yet to establish themselves among the elite, managed by a man yet to establish himself among the elite. Or, put another way, it was not Wembley that hampered them but the Champions League, whose teams know how defuse a situation.

Spurs did, though, miss White Hart Lane and the frenetic football it can inspire, too careful and considered in more spacious surroundings. This was most notable when, after eight minutes, Son Heung-min spurned as good an opportunity as they created all night, coming back inside onto his right foot to make sure instead of lashing a first-time shot with his left, before screwing wide anyway. Home is somewhere people feel comfortable enough not to worry about looking stupid.

Monaco, on the other hand, are aiming to reach the Champions League knockout stages for the third season in a row and are a settled side in good form. They attacked in bursts rather than waves, defined in particular by the elegant, intelligent running of Bernardo Silva, and it was he who opened the scoring, the deliciously eerie silence that followed all the better in a bigger ground.

Just after the half-hour, Monaco scored again, before a set-piece on the stroke of half-time sneaked Tottenham back into things. And they were better after that – “we dominated the game,” insisted Dele Alli – but the reality is that for all their vacant possession, it went more or less precisely as Monaco intended.

Without wingers able to get around the outside, and without touch players able to improvise a route through the middle, Spurs found it difficult to pass Monaco’s two sitting midfielders. Consequently, they created little in the way of serious chances, Harry Kane missing the best of them, and never really intimated that a goal was imminent.

What Spurs lacked in finesse they did make up for in buttocks – by the 81st minute, they had Moussa Sissoko, Vincent Janssen, Kyle Walker, Harry Kane, Mousa Dembele, Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen all on the pitch together. But it was hard to escape the impression that, though Pochettino bought decent players this summer, they are reserves rather than starters, and replacements not options; he has strengthened his squad when he needed to strengthen his team.

Nonetheless, there is no need for Spurs to panic; they have time to right themselves and time to improve. Their lack of individual brilliance means that to succeed, they must play with courage, cohesion and conviction, which last night, they could not; away to CSKA Moscow in a fortnight, they will have to find a way.

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FootballChampions LeagueTottenham HotspurAS Monaco
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