Pochettino balancing bravery with reality
In 1867, a gardener called Matteo Pochettino left his tiny village of Virle in the province of Turin, to move to Argentina and make a new life for himself. Taking his wife Virgilia and son Michele with him, he settled in Murphy, an even smaller village north-west of Buenos Aires, and began working the land.
Four generations and 105 years later, Mauricio was born. And although he was made proudly aware of his Piedmontese heritage, taught all about Italian football by his Juventus-supporting grandfather, he had never visited Turin. Until now.
In one sense, then, Pochettino is coming home. Yet as his side arrive in Turin for the latest stop on their grand European adventure, seven years since they last played a Champions League knockout game, they will be bleakly aware that this is no time to stand and admire the view.
No time to breathe in the crisp Alpine air, or sit back and marvel at just how far they have come in these few short years. Danger lurks all around, in the shape of a Juventus team that has dominated Italian football over the last decade and knows, perhaps as well as anyone else, where these ties are won and lost.
And so, here is the question for Pochettino and his young side: how brave do you feel? How high a line do you want to play against Gonzalo Higuain and Douglas Costa? How aggressively do you fancy pressing Sami Khedira and Miralem Pjanic in midfield? How comfortable are you leaving space on the flanks for Alex Sandro and Stephan Lichtsteiner to attack?
So far this season Tottenham have been to the Bernabeu and the Westfalenstadion, Anfield and Old Trafford, the Emirates and the Etihad. Yet it does not feel hyperbolic to describe this as their toughest test to date.
A large part of the reason for this is not just the Juventus name and the Juventus reputation, or the hostile welcome they can expect at the Allianz Stadium tonight, but the current form of their opponents.
Since switching to a three-man midfield in November, Massimiliano Allegri's side are currently unbeaten in 16 games in all competitions. During that run, they have kept an incredible 15 clean sheets. They have shut out some of the world's greatest forwards: Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi, Dries Mertens and Mauro Icardi.
Part of the reason Juventus have been such a tough unit to break down is that they favour organised structure over dynamic chaos. They do not press as wildly as many of Europe's top teams, and are perfectly happy sitting with 10 or even 11 men behind the ball.
The four-man defence, marshalled by the deft Mehdi Benatia and the legendary Giorgio Chiellini, know each other's games inside out.
And behind them all, having entered his fifth decade, the wonderful Gigi Buffon is enjoying another superb season in a career that has known little else.
Not just a test of technique, then, but one of temperament. The temptation for Tottenham will be to force the issue in pursuit of a precious away goal. Yet they will be fully aware of the risks: although the injuries to Blaise Matuidi and Paulo Dybala are a blow to Juventus, they still have the personnel who can turn defence into attack with frightening speed.
Sandro bursts out of left-back, sometimes down the flank, sometimes infield. Khedira and Pjanic are old hands at recycling the ball under pressure. The long, diagonal ball to Mario Mandzukic is always on. They have scored more set-piece goals than any other team in Serie A, and unlike many of their rivals who rely heavily on one or two goalscorers, Juventus offer a genuine goal threat all over the pitch.
And so Tottenham will seek to play on the front foot, of course they will. But just as at the Bernabeu against Real Madrid, or at Wembley against Borussia Dortmund, they must be prepared to play without the ball for long periods in order to maintain their shape.
Working in their favour, however, is the fact that Pochettino's tactical flexibility offers Juventus few clues as to how they will line up tonight.
Will he play the knobbly 3-5-2 he used in the Bernabeu? The more conventional 4-2-3-1 seen in most of Tottenham's Premier League games? Will he pack the midfield? Perhaps the biggest difference between the Spurs of this season and the Spurs of last is that like Juventus, they too can hurt sides in many different ways.
Their recent performances against United, Liverpool and Arsenal will have given them the confidence that they can break down the very best team. In Harry Kane, they have one of the world's deadliest strikers, one whose feats are beginning to make waves well beyond England's shores.
Chiellini described him as "one of the strongest in the world" at yesterday's pre-match press conference, and following a mesmerising duel with Kane in this stadium on Kane's full England debut in 2015, during which Kane remembers Chiellini giving him a dead leg in the first five minutes, you feel their tete-a-tete will go a long way to determining the direction of the match.
Behind him - and occasionally ahead of him, and occasionally to the side - you have Son Heung-min, one of the Premier League's most effective counter-attacking forwards. Dele Alli, one of the most technically-gifted footballers in England. Christian Eriksen, a playmaker who could pick out a key pass in a darkened cinema.
And so there are few teams remaining in the competition that you would want to face less than Pochettino's Spurs: an immensely dangerous side that nonetheless remains a largely unknown quantity at this level. Perhaps, then, all the pre-game talk about this being the ultimate test for Tottenham tells only half the story. It could well prove the ultimate test for Juventus, too.
© Independent News Service
- Juventus v Tottenham, live, TV3/BT Sport 2, 7.45
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