Tottenham's rout of Real Madrid could be their transformative moment
LONDON -- There are often seminal moments in the shape of victories of great magnitude, which set a team off onto the path towards new heights and previously unimagined glory. If Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham go on to realise their potential, the night they destroyed Real Madrid 3-1 at Wembley will prove to be the fork in the road that put them on course for whatever silverware lies ahead.
As their detractors will continue to point out, Spurs have yet to achieve anything beyond year-on-year improvement and the dubious distinction of finishing above Arsenal in the Premier League table. Pochettino and his players have not been able to add a trophy to the club's roll of honour and that failure will hang over them until they finally get their hands on a cup or league title. But every successful team has a moment that lifts them onto a new plane, boosting their confidence and self-belief to the point where they can win a trophy.
Such moments do not come much bigger than dismantling the reigning European champions.
Back in the mid-1990s, when Sir Alex Ferguson believed that Manchester United's best hope of winning the Champions League came in the shape of promising youngsters such as Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and the rest of the Class of '92, the mighty Juventus team of that era appeared to pose a challenge that his players simply could not take on. United were played off the pitch by Marcelo Lippi's Juventus team during two 1-0 defeats in the 1996-97 season, but Juve had raised the bar and Ferguson set them as the benchmark.
A year later, United defeated them 3-2 in a stirring game at Old Trafford, and within 18 months, Ferguson's team were European champions having overcome Juventus once again, this time in the Champions League semifinal, before beating Bayern Munich in the final.
After last season's group stage exit in the Champions League, Pochettino went into this season with his Spurs players needing to believe in their ability to succeed at the highest level. The 1-1 draw against Real in the Bernabeu two weeks ago was the first step on the ladder but beating them so convincingly at Wembley is another thing entirely and Spurs now have no reason not to believe. They have gone toe-to-toe with the European champions and not only emerged unbeaten after two games, but beaten them with their young stars, such as Harry Kane and Dele Alli playing central roles in their success.
"It was a fantastic display by us," Alli said. "We're very happy with the result, but I wasn't surprised [we were dominant]. We couldn't believe how much space we had at the Bernabeu.
"We don't want to just compete with these teams -- we want to beat them. I'm happy to get two goals but more importantly, it was a win."
Alli's post-match exuberance matched his performance on the pitch, with the 21-year-old looking as though he belonged on the same field as Cristiano Ronaldo, Isco, Toni Kroos and Luka Modric. His two goals may ultimately be remembered as fondly as Gareth Bale's hat-trick against then-European champions Inter Milan in 2010 --- if only Alli had scored with a close-range header to claim his own hat trick late in the game -- but like Spurs, Alli now has no excuses for not performing in the Champions League because he, and they, have done it against the very best.
Before the game, Pochettino spoke about the need for his players to cross the Rubicon and go from being pretenders to contenders. "I think the last step for us as a group and a club is mental and we must work very hard to try to change everything in the future," he said. "Something starts to move in the group, in the club, to feel you're part of the group and the project and everything.
"I think that is the last step that we need, to be stronger mentally. It's not about running more, doing more sessions, tactical or playing in a different way."
Post-match, Pochettino sensed that this was the result and the moment he had been waiting for. "The victory is so important for us and the players," he said. "It's a win over Real, so it's great for the club and fans. Of course this win gives us great belief for everyone and confidence.
"We are now in the next stage of the Champions League, but now it's so important to compete against Crystal Palace [next weekend]. Like a manager you can't stop thinking."
Spurs must now build on this result and prove it is more than a flash in the pan. But the win is there and so is the performance. As such, they've given themselves the platform on which to build something special.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_