Champions League progression another feather in Pochettino’s cap
PUBLISHED: 13:00 12 December 2018
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Spurs were down and out several times in Group B and yet somehow the Argentinian and his staff have guided them into the round of 16
It will not give Tottenham Hotspur a trophy. It was not even a win away to a European giant, but this result deserves to be celebrated.
Rival fans will point to the fact Barcelona played a weakened team with Lionel Messi on the bench, the fact Spurs will “probably be knocked out in the next round anyway” and how they still had to rely on PSV, but it doesn’t matter.
What needs to be recognised is the way Mauricio Pochettino, and his players, once again stayed calm, remained positive and truly held their nerve on a tense night of Champions League football in an intimidating stadium.
Since Barca lost to Bayern Munich on May 1 2013 on home soil, they had won 26 of their 28 European games at the Camp Nou and only drawn with Atletico Madrid and Juventus.
Barcelona at the Camp Nou in the Champions League = a home win and it seemed like it would happen again when Ousmane Dembele punished Kyle Walker-Peters’ naivety with seven minutes played.
It was the biggest night in the 21-year-old’s career and it started in nightmare fashion, but the England under-21 international, to his credit, recovered well.
Many teams and inexperienced players would have only gone one way and if Spurs had lost by a few goals and Walker-Peters had the most baptisms of fire, it would have been understandable – several clubs have been thrashed by Barca.
Yet Tottenham, in the image of their manager, didn’t panic and showed a calm exterior in a stadium full of European history.
The fact Marc-Andre ter Stegen, Gerard Pique, Jordi Alba, Arturo Vidal, Denis Suarez, Sergio Busquets and Lionel Messi were on the bench is not the crucial point, especially when the latter pair played a large chunk of the contest.
Barcelona still had players like Dembele, Philippe Coutinho and Ivan Rakitic involved plus regulars Nelson Semedo and Clement Lenglet in the starting XI.
Whoever the La Liga champions pick, they are always going to play the same way and it is here where the real credit needs to be given to Spurs because they played like they were the club with a philosophy of tiki-taka football.
Some of the moves Tottenham produced were stunning, with Christian Eriksen generally at the heart of it during a sensational display by the Dane.
Heung-min Son had chances, so did Harry Kane, then Eriksen and finally Moura had two before the visitors did get a deserved goal.
By the time it arrived, in the 85th minute, substitutes Erik Lamela, Moura and Fernando Llorente were all on the pitch with Walker-Peters, Son and Harry Winks the players to make way.
Of course Pochettino needed to be bold, Spurs were heading out, but he made a number of big decisions and all of them paid off.
He moved Moussa Sissoko to right-back and the Frenchman produced a colossal display, while Lamela began to get on the ball in dangerous areas once he came on.
Then Moura was introduced and he immediately gave Barca a different threat before the final sub Llorente played his part.
It was the Spaniard who occupied the attention of Juan Miranda when Kane’s centre was turned in by Moura.
If Llorente had not been on the pitch, the Brazilian defender may have come across and prevented his countryman from equalising at the Camp Nou.
When the pressure was on, Pochettino got it spot-on and he deserves enormous praise for the way he handled this Champions League campaign.
At Inter Milan on September 18, Spurs were without Hugo Lloris and yet the Argentinian did not make a big song and dance about the captain being unavailable when he could have.
When Barcelona visited on October 3, Tottenham were missing Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Eriksen and no excuses were made for the 4-2 loss.
Even after the disappointing 2-2 draw at PSV on October 24, where Lloris got sent off with the north Londoners in control, Pochettino’s persona remained the same.
He was relaxed and trusted in his squad. He backed them to come through and they have delivered despite gut-churning home games against PSV and Inter.
Spurs were heading out of the Champions League for good on November 6 with Luuk de Jong’s goal handing the Eredivisie side a one-goal lead, but substitute Llorente helped change the game and two Kane goals in the last 12 minutes earned a dramatic 2-1 win.
It was a similar story against Inter and Eriksen’s arrival off the bench helped Tottenham make the breakthrough in the 80th minute in another must-win game which gave them a faint chance of progression.
The dream turned to reality at the Camp Nou with a slice of luck, but above all a brilliant, dominant performance. Pochettino got it right again. He’s magic you know.