Sunday 22 September 2019

Pochettino's men ready to rise to biggest of challenges

Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino during the press conference Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino during the press conference Action Images via Reuters/Paul Childs. Photo: Paul Childs/Action Images via Reuters

Jonathan Liew

There's an immaculate salesmanship to Mauricio Pochettino when he talks ahead of big matches. Not that you notice it all the time, but then that's the thing about the best salesmen: you don't even realise you're being sold something.

He strides in, puffs his chest out and within 10 minutes you're basically nodding along, persuaded that Tottenham are so unbelievably buzzing for this that it's barely worth the opposition turning up.

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Unfortunately for Tottenham, this is the Nou Camp and Barcelona have every intention of turning up, albeit not quite at full strength. With the group already won and qualification already secure, they can rest a few stars and simply enjoy themselves.

Pochettino's team must match the result of Inter Milan, who play rock-bottom PSV Eindhoven at home, to qualify for the last 16 - no mean feat considering their own opponents.

Their unbeaten home record in European competition stretches back 28 games and more than five years.

In that time, they've averaged more than three goals a game. The season before last, Paris St-Germain came here with a four-goal head start and still lost, and that wasn't even a very good Barcelona team.

For Tottenham to come here and win would be an upset to rank with some of the very greatest in their history.

Pochettino is no foolish dreamer. Even when he stated that his intention is "always to dominate the opponent", he loaded it with more caveats than a Brexit withdrawal agreement.

"It is so difficult to play Barcelona," he admitted. "The quality they have is unbelievable. I know what they're capable of doing. They're not going to surprise us."

That, perhaps, is Tottenham's one trump card. It's unlikely Barcelona will know or even care about facing Kyle Walker-Peters on the Spurs right flank.

Walker-Peters, a right-back scheduled to start in the absence of Serge Aurier and Kieran Trippier, is 21 and has played 12 minutes in the Premier League this season. And yet to listen to Pochettino, you would think it was Philippe Coutinho who should be the one having greasy nightmares.

"I want to remind you that a year and a half ago Kyle won the U-20 World Cup in Korea, and I think his talent is unbelievable," Pochettino said.

"Young players need the trust to play. I am so happy from the beginning of the season to have three very good, excellent players in that position, three with different qualities. But Kyle Walker-Peters has the qualities to perform in the best way. We trust in him, we believe in him. He is going to be a massive success at this football club."

This, in many ways, is the essence of what Pochettino does. He somehow convinces the understudies, the misfits, the fringe acts, the undervalued, of their world-conquering potential.

"I don't care if they've got Goliath in their team," Ian Botham would tell his Durham team-mates in the early 1990s, when they were perennial wooden spoon candidates. "If we all do our job, they can't do theirs."

Squeeze

And so in order to stop Barcelona doing their jobs, Tottenham will need to squeeze out every last drop of skill and energy. They won't see much of the ball, so they'll need a good idea of what to do with it when they do.

In a weird way, you suspect that's just how Pochettino likes it. The bigger the challenge, the more he puffs his chest out and blazons his message of hope.

"I'm so optimistic," he said. "Always we must think to arrive at our best. To approach such an important game thinking only to do the job we want to do, not what Barcelona want to do."

Pochettino invited their young Irish midfielder to train with the first team squad at the Nou Camp last night, but the 16-year-old is not registered for Champions League action.

Luis Suarez will be among the home stars rested as he has been managing a chronic knee problem all season.

Jasper Cillessen may start ahead of Marc-Andre Ter Stegen in goal, Ivan Rakitic could get a night off in midfield and Coutinho could come in for Ousmane Dembele, currently in hot water after reportedly turning up two hours late for training on Saturday.

"I knew you were going to ask about Dembele," Barcelona boss Ernesto Valverde grumbled. "It's true that some things have happened, we will try to solve things internally, and there's not much more to say about this." (© Independent News Service)

Barcelona v Tottenham, Live

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What Tottenham need to do

Stop Messi

Some teams like to man-mark Lionel Messi and make the game a 10 v 10, others pile everyone behind the ball. The problem for Spurs is that no matter how much they want to stop Messi from influencing the game, they can't.

Avoid becoming stretched

Sergi Roberto is injured, so Nelson Semedo is likely to start. Spurs may employ a back three to play wing-backs and attempt to pin Semedo closer to his own box, which would force Barca into midfield traffic.

Beware Alba's forward runs

Jordi Alba assisted three of Barcelona's four goals the last time these teams met, overlapping on the left wing to get behind the Spurs defence. Serge Aurier or Kyle Walker-Peters will be tasked with tracking Alba, another reason Spurs may adopt a back three.

Keep a flexible shape

Harry Kane has often dropped into the 10 space behind Son Heung-min and alongside Dele Alli in recent weeks, unsettling defenders and giving himself a bit of room to attack from a deeper position. Spurs can outnumber Sergio Busquets in that defensive midfield area and get at a defence left vulnerable by Alba and Semedo's forward running.

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