'I am stronger with the hostile situation - I like it'
North London derby holds no fears for Spurs boss Pochettino
When Tottenham Hotspur's team coach winds its way through the back streets of Holloway at about 4pm today, the inevitable hostility and - in some places - hatred from Arsenal fans will inspire rather than intimidate Mauricio Pochettino. A playing career with Argentina, Newell's Old Boys, Espanyol and then Paris St-Germain has guaranteed that.
Coming under physical attack was a standard feature of the derby matches that Pochettino most fondly recalls and, as his eyes light up at all the memories, you can see that he is being utterly genuine in explaining how "danger" helped him as a player. "I am stronger with the hostile situation - I like it," Pochettino says. "In Argentina, Rosario Central and Newell's Old Boys is a very tough game and dangerous to play. When we arrived at Rosaria, you needed to arrive with all the windows closed on the coach and everyone lying on the floor."
The most recent north London derby at the Emirates did end with Theo Walcott being pelted with objects but, on being informed that such precautions are unlikely to be required today, Pochettino looks almost disappointed. "I like to - it is my habit, " he says, smiling.
PSG's trips to Marseille were similarly tense. "We arrived always with private security at the airport," he says. "We got two victories and it was difficult to leave the stadium. In the dressing room and on the coach, all the windows were broken. It was dangerous and, in the game, it was difficult too. They were throwing it all at us - radios and phones."
Pochettino's mind then flashes back to playing as a 20-year-old in the semi-final of the 1992 Copa Libertadores against América de Cali at a time when many of the leading Colombian clubs were under the control of drug barons and Colombia was in a state of huge civil unrest. "The game started late," says Pochettino. "It was very difficult in the changing rooms."
The match was also dramatic, with Pochettino's Newell's team prevailing 11-10 on penalties to reach the final against Sao Paulo that they lost on penalties. "After we won on penalties in Cali, one team-mate [Eduardo Berizzo] had a big cut on his head from a battery," he recalls.
As a manager, he has been involved in other memorable derbies, not least when Espanyol went to the Nou Camp in February 2009 and somehow defeated Pep Guardiola's Barcelona 2-1. "Espanyol was in last position and Barcelona were top of the table," he says. "All people said, 'OK, Espanyol is dead and has no chance'. For 27 years, Espanyol had never won away at Barcelona. It was a very good start for me."
A rather more mixed start at Tottenham has at least included London derby wins already this season against West Ham United and Queens Park Rangers. For Tottenham's fans, the biggest of all awaits today and, in outlining his expectations, Pochettino (right) has repeatedly told his players that they need to be both brave and aggressive. Spurs have lost eight, won one and managed only two draws in 11 visits to the Emirates.
"It's not another game," Pochettino says. "It's impossible that it's just another game. In this kind of game, you need to be brave to get the victory. I know the feeling of our supporters and we need to relay this feeling on the pitch. Not only outside but inside the pitch and to play with aggression. It's our responsibility to fight in every ball. Our supporters expect that of us." They do, and with Arsenal still having not shaken off a reputation for being soft-centred, Spurs will feel that they can win the battle for possession. There are certainly few managers in football who know Arsenal's midfield anchorman, Mikel Arteta, better than Pochettino.
They played together at PSG during the 2001-02 season, with Arteta describing Pochettino as like his "dad". The Tottenham manager prefers to say he was a "big brother" to the Arsenal captain. "I know he is on another side, the big sporting enemy, but I love Mikel," he says.
Arteta still regards Pochettino as one of the greatest influences on his career. "He was the captain for them when I started my career and he was like a dad, even if he doesn't like that word," Arteta says. "He really looked after me. I always appreciate all the advice that he gave me."
Arteta always expected Pochettino to become a manager. "He had a character - he had Marcelo Bielsa, his hero and mentor," he said. "Most of the concepts he's got to put in his teams are from him." (Daily Telegraph, London)