For someone who had never experienced the contradictory emotions of playing against one of his former clubs until Tottenham's dramatic Worthington Cup semi-finals against Chelsea two months ago, Gustavo Poyet is having to get used to the idea.
At White Hart Lane this afternoon horns will be locked again in an FA Cup quarter-final, and on Wednesday the teams confront each other in a Premiership game at Stamford Bridge rescheduled because Spurs were involved in the Worthington final; a draw today and there would also be a replay next Tuesday.
So, either two meetings in four days, or even three in 10, will go a long way to determining the tenor of both Tottenham and Chelsea's season. The bragging rights – "gloating" was the word Chelsea's chairman Ken Bates used, rather sourly – belonged to north London after that extraordinary second leg in January, when Spurs ended their humiliatingly long run without a win against their rivals from west London in emphatic fashion, 5-1.
Much of the kudos disappeared, however, withdefeat in the final by Blackburn, a result Bates could not resist describing as "good for the game". In the League, Chelsea have been ahead for almost the whole season and sit nine points in front of a Tottenham side who had been expected to make a much stronger challenge.
For understandable reasons, players and managers are normally reluctant to attach make-or-break status to a single game: losing it leaves them nowhere to go. Poyet, an affable Uruguayan far less guarded than most in his profession, is prepared to admit: "Sunday is the key moment of the season."
Having signed for Spurs last summer with players of the quality of Teddy Sheringham, Christian Ziege and, soon afterwards, Dean Richards, he might have expected better. There remains a possibility, however, that Tottenham's season will come to mirror the most memorable Premiership game in it, when they led Manchester United 3-0 at half-time, then conceded five goals in the next 45 minutes.
Approaching Christmas, things were still going well, but since demolishing Bolton and Fulham by an aggregate of 10-0 in a single week, they have not managed one decisive League victory. Will it end up as a season of two halves?
"We were looking to be in the top six and we were doing all right," said Poyet, who still cherishes hopes of a second FA Cup medal – he won one with Chelsea two years ago – and then a place at the World Cup finals. "We lost the best chance we had to get into Europe, [the Worthington Cup] but we're still there in the FA Cup, so we have to look to this game as a great opportunity to come back to Cardiff. Probably everybody knows that Sunday is the key moment of the season."
You suspect he would rather it was not occurring against his old club, where his outgoing personality made so many friends in four largely successful seasons. Having never previously played for more than one club in the same country (River Plate of Uruguay, Grenoble and Real Zaragoza were his previous stops) Poyet is not used to having to put one over old mates.
"I prefer to mark someone I know, so if you have a little friction, it's better. Sometimes you have to mark somebody you've played with for many years and you have to do the same. But it's a beautiful game to be involved in. I'm expecting the best Chelsea, because they know it's a best chance for them. We're different teams. I think we're more of a passing team and we'll try to play football. We try all the time to play football, though sometimes it is difficult.
"I remember the game against Arsenal when the ball was all the time flying in the air. So I don't know what's going to happen this time. They play a lot of balls for Jimmy [Hasselbaink] and Eidur [Gudjohnsen] and stopping them is the key to the game. It was the key to the last game, apart from the fact that we had six shots on goal and scored five. But maybe the problem is, too many people think about the last game against Chelsea."
His contribution to it ended by being substituted with the tie effectively won, his new loyalties reflected in a triumphant little jump as he left the pitch: "I felt so pleased and was just celebrating a magnificent victory, probably the best we've played this season."
Spurs have not come close to such form since that remarkable evening, when Chelsea looked beaten from the moment Teddy Sheringham slid aggressively into Boudewijn Zenden, putting him out of the match. Later Poyet and Sheringham both picked up yellow cards and Hasselbaink was sent off in a case of mistaken identity for Mario Melchiot.
At the first leg, there had been coins, a bottle and a Chelsea supporter on the pitch, so Poyet is not alone in hoping for an afternoon free of trouble on a day when football's profile will be high and the exposure widespread in three televised matches: "I'd like to say, 'Let's play football'. We don't want any problem with the supporters or people on the pitch or throwing things. And... [a disarming smile] I'd like to wish the referee luck." He may need it.Reuse content