Tuesday 21 November 2017

Mental strength is Spurs' last barrier to top - Pochettino

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: Reuters
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Photo: Reuters

Jonathan Liew

The most telling answer from Mauricio Pochettino came at the very end of a press conference that, in its ability to drag on interminably despite very little of consequence taking place, occasionally seeped into the realm of experimental theatre.

As long, direction-less questions about Real Madrid and Zinedine Zidane swirled through the air ahead of Tottenham's Champions League fixture at Wembley tonight, each of them requiring a word-for-word translation from Spanish to English and back again, at times even Pochettino himself, normally so ebullient, seemed on the verge of a sort of personal existential crisis.

Zidane, whose own press conferences offer the sensation of death without the ruinous funeral bills, would doubtless have approved.

Still, good things come for those who wait. And on the eve of what could be a bellwether game for his young side, Pochettino outlined what Tottenham need to catapult themselves to the top tier of the European game.

"The last step that we need," he said, "is to be stronger mentally. It's not about running more, doing more sessions, tactics or playing in a different way. The last step for us as a group, and a club, is mental."

A manager often lauded for his tactical nous and physical conditioning demands, Pochettino talks about mentality far more than either.

Since taking over as manager from Tim Sherwood in 2014, he has made it his business to transform the popular caricature of Tottenham as a club with high ideals but a soft underbelly, with a proud history but without the stone-cold entitlement that you need to stamp your authority on the modern game.

Successive defeats to West Ham at Wembley in the League Cup and Manchester United are a reminder of the two millstones still hanging around this side: no trophies, and a poor record in big away games.

Then again, after the near-miss of 2016, everyone assumed Tottenham would regress back to the mean.

That they would struggle to keep their best players. That they would fall away towards the end of the season. That they would struggle to adapt to Wembley. Little by little, they have conquered their collective neuroses.

A fortnight ago, in the Bernabeu, came the latest leap forward. Tottenham played beyond themselves in claiming a 1-1 draw against the defending European champions.

Beating them in the return fixture at Wembley would not only put them on the verge of the Champions League knockout stages. It would be Madrid's first pool-phase defeat in more than five years.

It would be a result to make Europe sit up and take notice. And for Pochettino's Tottenham, it would be another leap into the unknown.

As Pochettino explained: "When you are playing against the best team in the world, if you are not brave, it is so difficult. And yes, we are going to be brave. Our mentality is right, we are going to try to play without fear, and dominate the game. We must remember that, because if you have fear, it is difficult to show your real quality."

Real are vulnerable. Defeat at the weekend to Girona has left them eight points behind Barcelona in the La Liga title race. Cristiano Ronaldo is struggling for his best form and Gareth Bale is injured.

Pochettino is aware of the peak, but aware too that it can be scaled.

"When I praise Real Madrid," he said, "it's because I feel they're the best team in the world. But at the same time, I have the belief that we can win. I have faith in my players and the way we can beat them."

In one important respect, Spurs will be a different proposition to the one that so impressively drew in Madrid. Dele Alli will make his Champions League return after a three-game ban, and Pochettino warned that he was close to his best.

"He is so young, still so young, 21 (years old). Sometimes we expect too much, and the expectation levels on him are massive. For me, he is a special player, but has the capability to improve. With time, every day getting better, he can become one of the best players in the world."

Read those words back, and they might apply to Tottenham. With a little time, a little patience and a little learning, what more can they achieve? Ninety minutes at a packed Wembley against the European champions might offer us some clues.

Tottenham v Real Madrid, live, RTÉ2, 7.45

Independent News Service

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