To put this result in perspective, it had been five years since Real Madrid last experienced what it was like to lose a Champions League group game. They had won this competition three times out of the past four seasons and, though it didn’t particularly feel that way here, don’t discount the possibility of that famous old pot returning to the Bernabéu again next May. Not yet, anyway.
However, this was the night when the most successful club side in Europe found out the hard way why Mauricio Pochettino and his players have attracted so much acclaim over the past few years. It was the night Dele Alli nutmegged Sergio Ramos and, by the end, Cristiano Ronaldo could be seen dragging his fingers down his cheeks in frustration. For Spurs, it went better than they could possibly have dared to hope and, without exaggeration, sparked the sort of euphoria that should embolden them now to think they can actually win this competition. Yes, let’s not get carried away, but what other conclusion is there when they have taken apart the 12-times winners? “It wasn’t that we played badly,” Zinedine Zidane, Madrid’s manager, said. “We just came up against the better team.”
That makes it the most triumphant occasion yet of the Pochettino era, qualifying for the knockout stages with two games to spare, and the damage for Madrid might have been even worse if Alli had not headed wide from a glorious opportunity to complete a hat-trick, with the score at 3-0. No matter. Alli had already struck in each half before Christian Eriksen’s breakaway goal put Spurs in dreamland and, at that stage, Madrid were heading for the kind of drubbing that a club with their haughty self-regard would consider an affront. Ronaldo’s goal, 10 minutes from the end, changed the complexion a little but it would have needed an extraordinary feat of escapology to save Zidane’s team at that stage. And Spurs, frankly, are no longer a side with that kind of soft centre.
They had already supplied hard evidence in the Bernabeu two weeks ago that they were comfortable against elite opposition. That 1-1 draw undoubtedly helped to fix a mindset that they could take down Ronaldo et al and, in the process, they made it feel like a trick of the imagination that the common theory not too long ago was they did not enjoy playing at Wembley. The noise was as good as any time since Spurs took temporary residence. In fact, it was difficult to think of another occasion, certainly not an England fixture, when the volume has been turned so high.
Madrid often had more of the ball and Ronaldo, being Ronaldo, was a difficult and elusive opponent, shimmering with menace. Yet Tottenham gave everything to show they could excel at this level. They were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and utterly fearless. The night was a personal ordeal for Casemiro, usually one of the more distinguished midfielders in the business, and Spurs also had the little moments of luck that are sometimes needed on the big nights. In particular, Alli’s second goal took a handy deflection off Ramos before flying in from 20 yards.
Yet this was a fully merited victory. Harry Kane’s willingness to take on opponents and drive forwards in attacking positions made him a threat all evening. Alli’s contribution went way beyond his goals and it was also another fine night for Harry Winks. Kieran Trippier fully justified his selection ahead of Serge Aurier and Hugo Lloris showed again that he was a splendid goalkeeper, just as he had done in the Bernabéu.
The game was always fraught with danger, as it tends to be when Ronaldo, Luka Modric and Isco are playing on the other side and Marcelo is joining in attacks as an auxiliary left-winger. Yet there was never any hint of an inferiority complex and Spurs passed the ball so purposefully it did not come as a surprise when Alli opened the scoring after 27 minutes.
They had, after all, already put together a near-identical move earlier only for Alli to hang back when Trippier drilled the ball first-time across the six-yard area. Trippier’s determination to occupy attacking positions was a prominent feature all night and the next time he aimed a low centre into the box Alli made sure he reached the ball first to apply the decisive touch in front of Kiko Casilla, Madrid’s goalkeeper.
Alli’s second of the night came 11 minutes into the second half, leaving Casemiro on the floor before getting lucky with his deflected shot, but the third goal was the outstanding one, starting in the Spurs half before Eriksen was suddenly bursting through the middle. Alli and Kane had combined to set their team-mate free. It was a counter-attack of penetrative speed and Eriksen showed considerable composure, expertly steering his shot past Casilla.
Ronaldo’s goal was a much scruffier event from one of several goalmouth scrambles in the final exchanges. Yet there was only a flicker of anxiety among a near-84,000 crowd. Spurs are too stout these days to go into meltdown. Their body language was of a team who seemed completely unsurprised by the result and their supporters will remember this victory for many years.