Sheffield United vs Tottenham: Hostile night will not faze Mauricio Pochettino

Spurs manager says nothing can top South American fan aggression

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The Independent Football

No one would suggest that Bramall Lane will be a welcoming place tonight, with frost in the air and the heat of more than 30,000 Sheffield United fans in the stands. Tottenham Hotspur will have to stand up to a physical and vocal assault to earn their right to play their football, and to reach the Wembley final.

It may well phase some of Spurs’ younger players, but not if Mauricio Pochettino has anything to do with it.

The Tottenham manager knows something about pressure, about inhospitality, about playing a semi-final in the hardest conditions, with everything on the line. Yesterday, at his pre-match press conference, he spoke in great detail about the most memorable experience of his playing career, the semi-final, second leg of the Copa Libertadores in 1992.

Pochettino had just turned 20 and his team, Newell’s Old Boys, coached by Marcelo Bielsa, had just won the Argentine championship for the second season runnig. Down to the last four of South America’s biggest club competition, they hosted Colombian side America de Cali in Rosario and could only draw 1-1.

Newell’s travelled to Cali – 3,000 miles away, on Colombia’s Pacific coast, needing to come back with a result.

“It’s difficult to play in Colombia,” Pochettino recalled. “I remember going up the tunnel to the pitch and they started to throw batteries. I remember before the game my team-mate [Eduardo Berizzo] got hit and cut on the head. He had to get stitches from the doctor, it was  very tough.”

Kick-off was delayed because of the crowd trouble, with the Newell’s players finding it hard to reach their dressing room to get changed. After just six minutes of the match, Pochettino headed Newell’s into the lead from a free-kick. They were still ahead with seconds left but dreams of a place in the final were put on hold when Cali equalised and the game went to extra-time, then penalties.

“We won [through to ] the final after 24 penalties [11-10], it was tough,” Pochettino said yesterday. When reminded by The Independent that he had hit his spot-kick over the bar, Pochettino joked: “I wasn’t going to mention that. It  was crazy.”

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South American fans are very aggressive, according to Mauricio Pochettino. “It is nothing like that in England”

In the final, Newell’s met Sao Paulo. Again the tie went to penalties – in front of a crowd of 105,000 at the Estadio Morumbi – but this time Newell’s lost. Pochettino did not take a penalty kick.

That semi-final encounter, though, is the game that stands out for Pochettino. He discussed it before his first north London derby in September, and again yesterday. It is a remarkable story yet typical of what he experienced in his time playing all over South America.

“In Colombia, Argentina, Brazil, Peru or Ecuador, people are very aggressive,” Pochettino said. “It’s nothing like that here. When you go to these countries, I remember every time we drove from the airport, all the glass on the bus was smashed and we fell to the floor. It was always crazy with the army, military people, police.”

What this means is that there will be little in South Yorkshire tonight that can faze Pochettino.

“If I can cope with that, we can cope with anything,” he said. “When I came over to France, England or Spain, people told me it was difficult to play in. But when we arrived, it was nothing. They shout when something goes wrong but nothing else. This is easy.”

That was meant as no slight on Sheffield United, and although Spurs lead 1-0 from the first leg, Pochettino is expecting a difficult night at Bramall Lane. But that is a relative term.

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