Deflated Pochettino must digest home truths ahead of Ajax clash
Tottenham Hotspur 0 West Ham 1
In the fading minutes of the first defeat for Tottenham Hotspur at their new stadium yesterday, the away fans seized upon one more opportunity to wring some extra misery out of the occasion for their hosts with that old chant about a new ground erasing the soul of a club.
The West Ham fans sang "You're not Tottenham anymore", repurposing an observation that they have often made about themselves since their relocation to Stratford, although on this occasion it felt like they had misread it. Defeats like these - unexpected, inconvenient, embarrassing - were exactly what defined Spurs in the many years before they were transformed into Champions League contenders by Mauricio Pochettino. After the Champions League quarter-final triumph, and the seamless reintroduction to their gleaming new home on Tottenham High Road, this was a game in keeping with an old Spurs tradition. The worry for Pochettino is how he might reverse its effects.
His team go into Tuesday's Champions League semi-final first leg at home against Ajax Amsterdam having lost a game they should have won, and everyone could see that his players were struggling to recapture their sparkle.
Defeat by West Ham, the club who seized the poisoned chalice of the Olympic Stadium from Spurs all those years ago, may one day be regarded as a blip in a historic season for Pochettino. Although for the time being it hinted at some of the problems that he will face as he prepares his players for two legs against a Dutch side whose preparations have benefited from the postponement of domestic fixtures.
Harry Kane watched from a seat near the bench as Spurs finished the game with Fernando Llorente and Vincent Janssen labouring in attack. Pochettino said later that Harry Winks would not be fit to play in the first leg against Ajax, while Moussa Sissoko's readiness will be a later call. Former Ajax defender Jan Vertonghen missed this game with fatigue - he will be ready for Tuesday - and perhaps he might have got a foot in the way of Michail Antonio's winner.
To West Ham's enterprising attacker goes the honour of the first goal scored by an opposition player at the new ground, so too the first celebration mimicking the riding of an imaginary space-hopper. Or at least that was one pre-watershed interpretation of whatever it was Antonio was doing.
Manuel Pellegrini was later asked about the thrusting, bouncing choreography from his player and the Chilean, not exactly famous for his sense of humour, decided to ignore that part of the question altogether.
The result did not help Spurs' ambitions to secure third or fourth place for the Champions League next season - it is less a race than a giant slow-motion stumble for the line between four clubs whose form seems to be deserting them.
They remain third with two to play and Chelsea and Manchester United up against each other today, when Arsenal face Leicester City. Spurs should finish in the top four, but it was impossible to ignore the deflation in Pochettino.
He was careful not to criticise his players and reflected the game accurately when he said that Spurs had enjoyed the better of the first half before West Ham came back rejuvenated after the break.
"The feeling for everyone has changed quickly," Pochettino said. "After [beating] Brighton, everyone had a very good feeling, 'Fantastic season and we are going to arrive in our best condition [for the semi-final]'. But after our defeat it's like we will arrive the complete opposite."
He played Juan Foyth at right-back and the Argentinian was targeted in the first half, when Felipe Anderson had some joy down that flank. In midfield Mark Noble was outstanding alongside Declan Rice and Robert Snodgrass. They weathered the best of what Spurs had to throw at them and could have scored more in the closing stages when Antonio and Issa Diop went clear on the counterattack and forced good saves out of Hugo Lloris.
Pellegrini said that his team had come close before to a good result such as this against one of the 'Big Six'. "With Arsenal we played very well in both games, with Manchester United also. Against Chelsea in the second part of the second game and at home we played well. Now it is Tottenham. We lost 1-0 at home in a very tight and close game. Today we won. We demonstrated that we are able to play as a big team and they [the big teams] must demonstrate they are better."
Even so, after a run of three defeats and then that draw Leicester secured in the last minute, this was arguably West Ham's most eye-catching result of the season. In the centre of defence, Diop and Fabian Balbuena were reunited to great effect, the latter just managing to scoop the ball off the goal-line in time added on at the end when Janssen met Foyth's cross with a powerful header.
Former Spurs academy boy Ryan Fredericks capped a fine performance with a crucial tackle on Ben Davies after 74 minutes.
The only goal of the game had come earlier when Marko Arnautovic chipped a cross in from the right wing, Antonio took it on his chest and buried a shot past Lloris while holding off Davinson Sanchez. Arnautovic had looked a little off the pace in the first half but that cross alone justified his inclusion and whatever it was he came off with later, Pellegrini said it was not serious.
Remarkably this was Spurs' 12th defeat of a league season in which they remain third for now. Asked about the rest afforded Ajax this weekend, Pochettino shrugged. "These are the circumstances. We can't change that."
He said that his players' effort had been exceptional and, of course, he is right but there must now be concern at quite what kind of Spurs will show up on Tuesday.