Gus desperate to pass United test

Spurs' No 2 says overconfidence is the only problem facing the players aiming to break another hoodoo. By Steve Tongue
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The Independent Football

Like most foreign coaches taking a job in England, Juande Ramos was a little taken aback by the football culture both on and off the field. In Spain, he admitted in an interview last week, it was hardly possible to conceive of a game like Tottenham's 6-4 win over Reading, the sort of outcome that fellow Iberian Jose Mourinho once derisively called "a hockey score"; while at a supposedly profes-sional club it was difficult to credit the players' eating habits and physical condition: "The squad has lost a significant amount of weight," he said. As for the football: "You have to think in a measured way about what is happening on the pitch, not just running hard."

It was to help him adjust to this alien approach that Ramos, when leaving Seville for Spurs three months ago, brought on board as assistant manager a Spanish speaker with greater experience of the British way of playing, eating and drinking in Gus Poyet, who had the additional virtue of being a popular former Spurs player. So it was no doubt Poyet who had the task of explaining to him why quite so many Spurs players were pictured in the newspapers as a result of their night out celebrating the 5-1 victory over Arsenal in last Tuesday's Carling Cup semi-final.

"I had the same problem [of understanding] when I arrived," the Uruguayan said on Friday. "You're coming from a totally different world in Spain in terms of habits. You try to accept some parts of that. You can't accept everything. Things happen in England that you don't hear a lot in other places. Sometimes it's good for team spirit, sometimes bad when you're in the papers every now and then. I'm the kind of coach that trusts players a lot. You expect them to behave. We need to convince them that being very careful with alcohol [will help them] to perform better."

Improved performance from the same squad has been evident under Ramos, lifting them to 11th in the table and the Carling Cup final. Although no one seriouslybelieves Spurs would have stayed in the bottom three of the Premier League had Martin Jol not been sacked, the team have become more consistent, and meaner as well as leaner. It will therefore be significant howthey respond to today's challenge of an FA Cup tie away to Manchester United.

Poyet recalls his games in midfield for Tottenham against United as "playing quite well but always lost". His memory has not betrayed him, at least in terms of results. Six straight defeats in his three seasons contributed to a record of not having beaten Sir Alex Ferguson's side since the last day of the 2000-01 season, when United were already champions. Poyet has, however, been around twice to see Spurs end similar examples of what journalists tend to call a "hoodoo" against long-standing rivals, leading him to believe that all bad things must come to an end eventually. Last week's rapturously received victory over Arsenal was a first success against their nearest neighbours since 1999, and he was a player when they defeated Chelsea by the same score at the same stage of the same competition in 2002, ending a run of 26 matches against his former club without any joy. So he could be forgiven for talking up the possibility of a newly confident side knocking out last season's finalists this afternoon.

Instead, he believes management's task since Tuesday has been to calm the players down: "When we got here, everything was about how little confidence there was, now it's the opposite. Tuesday was excellent, something we were desperate to do, but now it's a new challenge. You have to [go] back to basics." Basics, he insists, are an essential part of the new regime, "every part of the training, physical and mental, being simple".

He will not be drawn on comings and goings before the end of the month, although it seemed likely last night that Jonathan Woodgate will be joining for about £8m, with a disenchanted Pascal Chimbonda likelyto go, possibly to Newcastle.

Dimitar Berbatov, coveted by United, appears genuinely excitedby the prospect of sticking around to play in a Wembley final next month. Poyet will enjoy that too, all the more so with Chelsea providing the opposition to remind him of his own glory days atthe stadium.

In the last season before the bulldozers moved in, he scored both goals in the FA Cup semi-final victory over Newcastle and played his part in the final success against Aston Villa. Cliché or not, it was a boyhood dream come true for a man from Montevideo.

"Any foreigner who comes to play in England is absolutely desperate to walk into Wembley with the FA Cup standing there. That's different to any game in the whole world. The FA Cup final is the one you're watching all over the world and you say, 'Maybe I'm gonna be lucky enough to be there', so when you're here you do everything possible to be in that position. I was lucky enough to go up and collect the trophy behind Dennis Wise, so I try to transmit that to the players. There's no doubt it was as good as any day in my football life."

Today's matches

Hereford Utd v Cardiff City; FA Cup 4th round, 12.30pm

Manchester Utd v Tottenham; FA Cup 4th round, 2pm, BBC1

Falkirk v Celtic; Scottish Premier, 2pm, Setanta 1

Sheffield Utd v Manchester City; FA Cup 4th round, 4pm, Sky Sports 1

Senegal v Angola; African Nations Cup, 5pm, Eurosport 1

Tunisia v South Africa; African Nations Cup, 7.30pm, Eurosport 1