The Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid and Allianz Stadium in Turin: the stages for the latest chapter in the never ending Champions League saga that, on this occasion, twice pitted the wise, the aged and the knowing against the youthful, the hungry and the learners.
Real Madrid’s experience and know how was highlighted in a 3-1 win over PSG whilst 24 hours earlier the same traits of a Juventus side, winners of the last six Serie A titles, were undone by a group built in the image of their youthful and effervescent manager.
Mauricio Pochettino, a man showered with compliments and lauded with praise, on this occasion at least, outmanoeuvred a man in Max Allegri who has come within a game of delivering the treble in two of the last three years.
Last night in the Spanish capital Unai Emery, a man under immense pressure, faced Zinedine Zidane; a man with a decade of managerial experience less than him. But whilst Emery fielded a starting line-up containing Marco Verrati, Edinson Cavani and Kylian Mbappe: in essence a group who’s appetite for European and global success has yet to be fulfilled, Zidane included Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos and Toni Kroos: a trio who’s hunger is more than satisfied, but on the evidence of last night remains as affluent as ever.
Yet not Real Madrid’s get out of jail card nor Tottenham’s second-half comeback can be indebted to the contrasting traits they produced or the lack of them shown by their opponents.
What Pochettino and Zidane showed over the last 48 hours was that experience, or the lack of it, counts for little without the remainder of a winning attitude. Two goals down within nine minutes must’ve left Tottenham somewhat shell shocked and began to draw the feeling of a boys against men scenario that we saw in Juventus’ semi-final with Monaco last year.
But the London-based side dug in and stuck to what they do best, owing much, not to Harry Kane, but to Moussa Dembele in the middle of the park who served to prove that he is a leading light in a sparkling team.
The two goals they left Italy with puts them as favourites for the return leg at Wembley, as does the same amount of goals Real Madrid scored in a five minute blitz which makes a trip to Paris only slightly less daunting.
Yet discounting a champion side like Juventus from picking up the result they need in one of Europe’s finest stages is a mistake. They are built for this exact occasion and like the great past leaders of their nation’s capital Rome; ooze an aura that will not lye down no matter the opposition.
Three successive doubles has proved their obsession and commitment to winning, what they must now do is dim the growing light of a Tottenham side who plan to make the Italians one of many future scalps. The scene is set, Tottenham won the battle of Turin but this Italian outfit have lost many on their way to war successes over the years.
The danger for their Parisian parallels is that Emery could not guide his young, exciting and – by immense contrast to Tottenham – expensive side to a reputation changing result in perhaps Europe’s most famous of settings. Their aptitude once again called into questions as they and the young pretender Neymar did exactly that: pretend to be what they eventually aspire to be. Despite having much of the contest and feeling, understandably, aggrieved at the result, they find themselves in a scenario true European greats don’t.
PSG lack the experience, one progression to the quarter-finals since the arrival of their Qatari owners serves to rubber stamp the overriding issues that this side lacks the grit or the brain for knockout football. The one thing they don’t lack is the talent, and those aspects they lack are only obtainable through failure. The concern is how many times they have to fail before they learn how to negate this type of competition.
Fail to get a result in Madrid they did, but in the French capital a passage to the next round is more than feasible, as is a Juventus win at Wembley. Two sides, almost world’s apart in success and history, are down after the first leg but a million miles away from being out.
Real Madrid and Tottenham can see the last eight, but remain a sight it will, unless they broadcast the same experience and aptitude that bought them the ascending results in the first place. Once again the Champions League has left two sides, and certainly one manager, teetering on the brink which looks set to bring the best out of both, the question now is whether it’s enough.