Exactly three years before Dele Alli scored twice in Tottenham Hotspur's historic and deserved 3-1 defeat of Real Madrid on Wednesday, the midfielder was dusting himself off following a goal-scoring outing against Swindon Town.
The meteoric and seemingly unstoppable rise of Alli was questioned lately when he staged a summer auction for a new agent after ditching his former representative Rob Segal. Instead of being grounded by his beginnings as a raw, third-tier hopeful with Milton Keynes Dons, naysayers claimed his head was turned by avarice that he hoped would be satisfied via an agent who could negotiate a generous pay packet and, eventually, a lucrative transfer from north London.
His efforts against Manchester United on Saturday - letting the likes of Ashley Young get under his skin and spurning what could have been the match-winning goal - further supplemented accounts insisting he was distracted by off-the-pitch matters.
He hadn't covered himself in glory before the United game either, picking up a suspension for allegedly showing the referee his middle finger when on international duty, and being accused of diving in Huddersfield.
(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)
The fact that Spurs' visit from Los Blancos was Alli's first Champions League outing of the season was another stick to beat the Englishman with. His petulance resulted in the first red card of his career against Genk last February - a dangerous, high chop at Brecht Dejaegere - and a subsequent suspension which ran until Wednesday's wrangle. With a pinch and a few barbed words, Alli's fiery streak can come to the fore, and this is something he will have to control. If it isn't tamed, he'll cost his team matches just like he did that night at Wembley.
'Winter is coming'
His manager Mauricio Pochettino, however, was never concerned that Alli was risking not fulfilling his promise with indiscipline and a lust for cash. In fact, he believed the 21-year-old's best performances were just around the corner.
"He is motivated now. His internal motivation is higher now to try to compete at his best level. I am not worried about him," Pochettino told The Telegraph's Jeremy Wilson on Tuesday.
"I think he needs to enjoy playing football. He will show his character and personality like he did against Manchester United. I think he is calm. He feels (it) too, because he is disappointed with himself that he's not at his best but it's coming. Like the winter is coming."
When Alli's head is completely in the game, he plays with a tactical maturity that belies his tender years. His versatility is a trait Pochettino adores. The Argentinian first deployed Alli as a traditional box-to-box midfielder, exhibiting the youngster's similar qualities to his hero Steven Gerrard. He's since flourished when shadowing Harry Kane, making late dashes into the box with the ball at his feet or to meet a wicked delivery from Tottenham's contingent of forward-thinking full-backs.
Against Real Madrid, he was an intelligent infiltrator of space. He somehow continually found around one of the most formidable squads ever assembled. Incredibly, Alli should've scored a hat-trick against the back-to-back Champions League winner.
His showing was undeniably cocksure, but when it's channelled correctly, it can deliver performances that add credence to arguments that he can grow into a world-class talent. It's a quirk that doesn't necessarily shackle precocious talent: Cristiano Ronaldo isn't exactly shy of his own reflection.
"It was a fantastic performance from us," Alli said post-match. "We knew if we stuck to the game plan and stayed solid at the back, we would have a lot of chances. We spoke after the game at their place and couldn't believe the space we had. The easy pass was sometimes too obvious at times. We don't want to compete with these teams, we want to be winning."
Alli managed to overshadow local hero Kane's triumphant, speedy return from injury and Christian Eriksen's ever-artful work. But, most tellingly, it was an evening that showed the spellbinding acts Alli is capable of when he's focused and not distracted.
If the reports are true, Alli, be warned. For athletes who follow the temptations that sports dangle in front of their noses, the fall can be much lower than Swindon Town.