Mauricio Pochettino’s first experience of European football was in Cyprus and, 18 years later, Tottenham’s manager returns to the Mediterranean island on Thursday night to make his managerial bow on the Continent.
It was September 1996 when a 24-year-old Pochettino was part of an Espanyol side who drew 2-2 with Apoel Nicosia in the first round of the Uefa Cup. Pochettino’s Espanyol won the return leg 1-0 and, ahead of Tottenham’s Europa League game against AEL Limassol, he can still recall his first taste of European football.
“I remember it was very hot,” said the head coach. “We drew the first leg here in Cyprus before winning the second leg. I would settle for the same outcome this time.”
The winners of this season’s Europa League will qualify for the Champions League group stage and Pochettino, who last season said he had “no interest” in the competition because “it kills you”, has no intention of taking it lightly.
“The Europa League is now a different competition,” he said. “Why? Well, if you won it last year you got nothing. Just a trophy. But now the Europa League gives you the opportunity to play in the Champions League.”
The prospect of playing 16 games, which is what it would take to reach the final in Warsaw, does not put Pochettino off. He feels Spurs have enough to cope with the demands of domestic and European football this season.
“We have a very strong squad,” he said. “But we need to be clever in our analysis and management of the players.
“We will put in place the best team to try to win the game.”
Emmanuel Adebayor, Christian Eriksen, Aaron Lennon, Younes Kaboul and Etienne Capoue have not made the trip to Larnaca, where the first leg of this play-off tie is being held. Belgian trio Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembélé and Nacer Chadli are back, but goalkeeper Michel Vorm is still not available.
Pochettino has dismissed suggestions that Vorm is not being selected because of an ongoing dispute between the goalkeeper’s previous clubs Utrecht and Swansea over money apparently owed to the Dutch club in sell-on fees for his summer move to Spurs.
“He is not in the squad for this leg because he has a specific plan,” said Pochettino, whose side host Queen’s Park Rangers on Sunday.
“He arrived late from the World Cup and it is important to prepare him for the next level next week.”