Huge challenge for Harry Kane to breach great wall of Juventus in Champions League tie
For a split second, Harry Kane defied gravity, soaring surreally high and hanging in the sky to plant his header past Petr Cech. The goal shepherded Tottenham Hotspur towards victory in their derby against Arsenal and for that Kane will cherish it more than most.
Yes, he had helped gain height with a little leverage off his marker, but that is what the most dexterous centre-forwards do. On reviewing the contact, even Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger felt the manoeuvre was legitimate.
Wenger has watched Kane climb ever higher in the past two seasons. He acknowledges the striker has cultivated such a broad range of assets that he is, as Wenger put it with resignation after Saturday’s 1-0 defeat, “one of the best in the world. He scores against everybody".
Everybody? Kane’s challenge on Tuesday night in Turin is to score where almost nobody can.
The statistics are so daunting that Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino knows them off by heart. “Juventus, a team who has conceded one goal in 16 matches,” he says, listing the challenges facing his Tottenham in the first leg of their Uefa Champions League last 16 tie.
He may have gone on: Juventus, the club who have suffered just one defeat in their last 14 European Cup knockout matches. Juventus whose last loss in Europe at their fortified home was way back in April 2013.
If anywhere can provoke alarming feelings of vertigo even in the soaring Kane, it is the Juventus stadium.
Pochettino is encouraged by the quality of Tottenham’s football lately. Their run of form includes wins over Arsenal and Manchester United, and a defiant 2-2 draw with Liverpool at Anfield. But there is an imbalance of experience and pedigree in the meeting of the Old Lady, as Italy’s serial champions are known, and Tottenham’s tyros.
“There are many challenges,” says Pochettino, who leads Spurs for the 35th time in a European match, and has yet to take them beyond the last 16 of either the Europa League or Champions League. “One of them is to overcome our lack of experience to beat a great team like Juventus.”
Experience oozes off the Juve teamsheet. Between them, the Juve quartet of Gianluigi Buffon, Giorgio Chiellini, Andrea Barzagli and Gonzalo Higuain have played in more than 400 European club matches in their distinguished careers. The only player in Tottenham’s starting XI to have played more than 30 times in the Champions League is captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
How to make up the shortfall in knowhow? “My idea is to keep playing the same,” Pochettino says, “to try to be a little bit braver if we can, and be clever, because Juventus’s level is one of the best in Europe.”
Pochettino and his staff spent Friday night watching Juventus temporarily move to the top of Serie A with a hard-fought 2-0 win at Fiorentina. Napoli went back to one point clear at the summit on Saturday, but it will have gathered that Kane’s room to manoeuvre in the Juve penalty box will likely be more restricted than it was against Arsenal.
He will be policed by the rugged Chiellini and probably by Medhi Benatia, with Mario Mandzukic lending his height to defence when Spurs have attacking set-pieces.
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Juve will not be at full strength, though the trip to Florence gave Juve manager Massimiliano Allegri plenty of arguments about the qualities of his back-ups. Regular right wing Juan Cuadrado is out injured, as is Blaise Matuidi, the dynamo of central midfield.
There is doubt over Paulo Dybala’s readiness to return from the thigh problem that has sidelined him for more than a month. In his place, there is a case for picking Federico Bernardeschi in his attack. The young winger, signed from Fiorentina for over €40 million (Dh203.7m) in the summer, struck the opening goal on Friday, from a direct free-kick, his bold creativity can trouble Spurs.
Allegri has a dilemma at right-back, between the vastly experienced Stephan Lichtsteiner and the more agile Mattia de Sciglio. Whoever is picked can expect to be busy, guarding against the runs of Son Heung-min and Dele Alli.
He will also have to watch out for the crosses of Ben Davies, whose ability to pick out Kane the target man has helped push him a little ahead of Danny Rose in Pochettino’s hierarchy of attacking left-backs.
Allegri knows Juventus have the status of favourites. Yet he insists that Tottenham are one of the best sides in Europe, and that they are "technically excellent and physically strong".
"Anybody who thinks we are going to dominate every match, especially in the Champions League, should consult a doctor.”