Vertonghen: It’s time for Tottenham to offer a genuine challenge in Europa League
Jan Vertonghen says Tottenham are determined to stage a genuine challenge for the Europa League trophy as the Lilywhites prepare to face Belgian outfit Anderlecht in his homeland on Thursday.
Spurs reached the quarter-finals of the competition in Vertonghen’s first season at the club in 2012-13, narrowly missing out on a place in the final four as they lost to FC Basel in a penalty shoot-out.
But, since then, the Lilywhites have gone backwards in Europe, exiting in the last 16 in 2014 and then losing to Fiorentina in the last 32 last season.
There appears to be a determination to reverse that trend, though. Mauricio Pochettino picked a surprisingly strong side for the last game in Monaco, with Vertonghen included in the line-up after being rested for the Group J opener against FK Qarabag – and the Belgian says that shows Tottenham are taking the competition seriously.
“Yes we are,” he said. “I think in the past couple of years we didn’t take our chance to win the Europa League and I think we had the possibilities [to do it] – especially the first year when we lost against Basel.
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“We want to show that we can compete in Europe as well and I think we have the bench and the squad for that.”
Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld were both part of the Belgium side that beat Israel in their final Euro 2016 qualifier in Brussels last Tuesday.
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And, having returned to Tottenham to face Liverpool, they are now set to fly back to Brussels for Spurs’ Europa League clash against Anderlecht.
After playing at centre-back together for Ajax before securing the full-back spots for their national team, the pair have been reunited at White Hart Lane following Alderweireld’s welcome arrival in July – and Tottenham’s defence already looks much-improved.
Saturday’s goalless draw with Liverpool means Spurs have conceded just seven goals in their opening nine Premier League games – the joint-best record in the top flight along with Arsenal.
“In the past we lost a lot of games by conceding two, three or even four goals – and against Liverpool and City five or six - so we had to avoid that and now we’re keeping clean sheets,” said Vertonghen. “I think we have one of the best defences in the Premier League and hopefully we can start scoring.
“We always did well against the ‘smaller teams’ and this season we want to show we’re ready to compete for the top places.
“I think we need to win these games – like against City at home, Liverpool, the Chelsea game we won [on New Year’s Day]. If you want to compete you have to win against your rivals and that’s why it’s a pity we didn’t win on Saturday.
“Toby and I feel very comfortable playing together, you can see that. He covers me, I cover him. We talk, we help our full-backs and we know what to expect from one another.
“In the national team [at centre-back] we have [Vincent] Kompany, who’s outstanding, we have [Thomas] Vermaelen and [Nicolas] Lombaerts is doing very well, and we haven’t got that many options at full-back.
“I think Toby and I do very well there [as full-backs] and in the national team with Belgium you have to be happy when you play, so I won’t complain.”
There were contrasting fortunes for Tottenham’s other two Belgians against Liverpool at the weekend. Nacer Chadli was injured early in the game and now faces six weeks on the sidelines, but a half-fit Mousa Dembele made his first start since returning from his own ankle problem.
The 28-year-old’s days in the centre of Spurs’ midfield recently appeared to be over, with Eric Dier, Ryan Mason, Nabil Bentaleb and Dele Alli all seemingly ahead of him in the pecking order – but he deputised in front of the back four against Jurgen Klopp’s Reds and was named the man of the match after a fine display.
“I don’t know if he’s fifth choice but he’s been injured for weeks and in that time players like Eric Dier and Dele Alli have been outstanding for us,” said Vertonghen.
“I don’t think he’s fifth choice but he came in as that one now and he was unbelievable.
“I spoke to him last week and said he had a big chance to play and he said ‘ah we’ll see’, but on Saturday he showed he’s one of the best midfielders in the Premier League.
“Is that his best position? I won’t go into that discussion because it might come back to me later, but I think he’s an unbelievable midfielder, he has all the qualities to play there.
“He’s so strong – there’s no-one stronger on the ball than he is - and he’s great for us. I hope he stays fit for us now for the rest of the season so he can keep improving.”
Follow me on Twitter @BenPearceSpurs