LONDON (Reuters) - Giorgio Chiellini’s assertion that Tottenham Hotspur “always miss something to arrive at the end” would have chiselled deep into a nerve for fans of the north London club.
Juventus’ smash-and-grab 2-1 victory at Wembley on Wednesday to knock Tottenham of the Champions League 4-3 on aggregate at the Round of 16 stage was bad enough, but the words of the Italian defensive rock rubbed salt into the wounds.
They also offered more ammunition to those who say Tottenham, for all their worthy progress under coach Mauricio Pochettino since his arrival in 2014, fall just short when it really matters, when the stakes are highest.
Chiellini’s verdict was harsh, and perhaps not entirely accurate, but coming from one of the greats of European football they cannot simply be ignored.
After all, this is a Tottenham team that lost an FA Cup semi-final to Chelsea last season despite being the better side for much of the game, when a victory might even have tipped the Premier League title race in their favour.
Instead they had to settle for runners-up spot, having finished third in a ‘two-horse race’ with Leicester City the previous season after a last-day capitulation at Newcastle saw them drop below arch-rivals Arsenal.
There is also the problem Tottenham have away to the so-called top six in England. This season they lost at Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City, and needed an injury-time penalty to rescue a draw at Liverpool.
Under Pochettino they have won only one of 19 away games against that quartet and reigning champions Chelsea.
The looming visit to take on Chelsea at Stamford Bridge will be a serious test of their mettle, especially with its likely implications for a top-four finish.
Who knows what impact victory over Juventus, Champions League runners-up in two of the last three years, would have had on Tottenham’s inner belief.
Instead, former Manchester United midfielder Roy Keane said they “found a way to lose” and lacked the killer instinct.
Former Tottenham and England midfielder Jamie Redknapp suggested in his Daily Mail column that Spurs are in danger of becoming “nearly men” — citing too a 3-2 defeat by West Ham United in this season’s League Cup, having led 2-0.
“Mauricio Pochettino is a superb manager but he needs to find a way for his team to win from these positions in the way Jose Mourinho and Pep Guardiola do,” Redknapp said.
Chiellini, who has won six Serie A titles with Juventus and earned nearly 100 caps for Italy, spoke of the ‘history of Tottenham’ being one of near misses.
Yet in the swirl of reaction to Wednesday’s events at Wembley, the 33-year-old also offered a positive spin on the future prospects of an exciting young squad featuring a core of England internationals such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli.
“Tottenham proved to be a great team, I think they are missing very little in becoming one of the best teams in Europe, maybe some experience,” he said.
“A few years ago we were in the same place, and reaching two finals in the last three seasons helped us to better handle these kinds of games.”
Tottenham’s French keeper Hugo Lloris said they must learn from the setback. “Sometimes football is cruel but it’s part of the game,” he said.
“We have a very talented team, we’ll show it again.”
Despite their 17-match unbeaten run coming to an end, Tottenham can still end the season on a high.
They face Swansea City in the FA Cup quarter-finals and winning that trophy for the first time since 1991, together with a third consecutive top-four finish, would be the perfect riposte to the Tottenham bashers.
Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by John O'Brien