Tottenham Hotspur play their first Europa League game of the season, dreaming of glory eight months from now and passage into next year’s Champions League. Their greatest barrier, though, may be the draining Premier League season.
Spurs face Qarabag, champions of Azerbaijan, knowing that if they navigate 15 matches, and win the final in Basel, they will finally be back in the big time. That is what Sevilla managed last year, and their reward was in the Champions League on Tuesday night, when they beat Borussia Mönchengladbach 3-0.
Mauricio Pochettino would love for his Spurs team to emulate the Spanish side, but knows there is a big structural barrier, in the physical competitiveness of the Premier League. Spurs played an exhausting game last Sunday and will do so again in three days’ time. This physical build-up may eventually cost them.
“The Champions League is a big motivation,” Pochettino said yesterday, “but it is difficult to arrive to the final. Tuesday was a good example. Manchester City and Manchester United lost in the Champions League, because the Premier League is a very tough competition. That is why you suffer when you play in Europe.”
While the financial muscle of the middling teams is one of the great strengths of the modern Premier League product, Pochettino admits that it costs English sides when they play in Europe. “I think in different leagues, like Spain and Italy, the gap between the teams and the teams at the top, it is a bigger gap,” Pochettino said.
The Argentine joked that if Tottenham played in Azerbaijan or Andorra they could triumph in Europe, but added he would not like it any other way. “For me it is perfect,” he said. “It is the toughest competition in the world. I think for our supporters the Premier League is more important than other competitions.”
With that in mind, he will make changes tonight. He promised “a mix between the players that have played in the Premier League and those who haven’t yet”, with Nabil Bentaleb and Kieran Trippier likely to come in.
Ryan Mason is out, after hurting his knee while scoring the winner at Sunderland last Sunday, while Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembélé are also out.
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