Tottenham’s Champions League opener against Inter Milan tonight already feels like a key crossroads in their season

Fair or not, for any club with designs on grandeur these are the stakes. Tottenham arrive in Milan in danger of losing three matches in a row for the first time under Mauricio Pochettino

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Tuesday 18 September 2018 08:25 BST
Who have the English clubs drawn in the Champions League?

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


One defeat, these days, is a setback. Two a slump. Three a crisis. Which may seem a touch harsh on Mauricio Pochettino, given the journey he has overseen for the last four years. But for any club with designs on grandeur, these are the stakes. Tottenham play with live ammo these days, which is why their trip to Milan already feels like a crossroads in their season.

Never under Pochettino have Spurs lost three in a row. It feels like months rather than just three weeks since a spectacular 3-0 win at Old Trafford preserved their 100 per cent record in the Premier League. But even if the downturn has been short and sharp, perhaps the trouble has been brewing for a while. For Spurs, the hope is that the step up to Champions League level can jump start a season that already looks in danger of stalling.

Inter Milan v Tottenham is a fixture with connotations, of course, and their head-to-head record of two wins each barely hints at the drama those four games have contained. The scintillating double header in the 2010-11 Champions League is the one everyone remembers, when Gareth Bale first announced himself on the European stage with a hat-trick in Tottenham’s 4-3 defeat, before taking the defending champions apart at White Hart Lane in a 3-1 win.

If anything, though, their meeting in the Europa League round of 16 two seasons later was more dramatic still. A far inferior Inter side were swatted away 3-0 in the first leg before launching a staggering comeback at the San Siro, wiping out the deficit in 90 minutes before Tottenham finally staggered through on away goals after a 4-1 defeat. And in a way, those four matches encapsulate Tottenham’s European adventures in the modern era: emotionally charged, temperamentally brittle and as capable of thrilling collapses as they are of thrilling upsets.

Virtually all teams need a certain period of acclimatisation to the heightened drama of Europe’s biggest stage. But Tottenham are no longer novices here. This is their ninth straight season of European competition, their third straight Champions League campaign, and the old excuses will no longer suffice. Spurs need to show the maturity and focus that was evident for large parts of last season’s competition, before evaporating in three careless minutes against Juventus at Wembley.

The omens, as we have seen, are not good. Their 2-1 defeat against Liverpool at the weekend should be an enormous shock to the system: a reminder of the vast gulf between Tottenham at full throttle and Tottenham at around 80 per cent intensity. Harry Kane was unusually critical of the team’s ball retention at Wembley on Saturday: the ponderous pauses in possession, the hopeful long balls that Liverpool could see coming a mile off. Tottenham on song are a wonderful side to watch. But they’re not good enough to win playing like that.

Allied to which, various off-field hiccups have upset the squad’s emotional equilibrium at just the wrong moment. A drink driving charge for Hugo Lloris, ongoing delays with the construction of their new stadium, the lack of summer signings, the veiled warning from Pochettino to Harry Winks that he must avoid getting lured into the “business around football”: perhaps it’s all just unfortunate coincidence, but the suspicion is that beneath the serene exterior, Tottenham are a club slowly running wild.

Pochettino has to take his share of responsibility. Daniel Levy’s inertia in the transfer market is hardly his fault, and nor are the shenanigans over the new stadium. But on and off the pitch, Spurs are in danger of succumbing to the one vice Pochettino has never tolerated in all his time as a coach: indiscipline. Perhaps - and it’s just an observation - the lack of new faces in the summer has allowed a sort of comfort zone to creep in at Enfield. Perhaps the stimulus of the Champions League theme tune will finally stir Tottenham into playing the sort of football of which we all know they are capable.

At which point enter their first stroke of luck: Inter Milan, who in many ways are having an even more indifferent time of it. Just four points from four Serie A games was hardly the return Luciano Spalletti would have been expecting, after being handed a kind run of early fixtures and almost £160 million in investment since last summer.

Tottenham have lost their last two games
Tottenham have lost their last two games (AFP/Getty)

If Tottenham’s problem is a lack of fresh impetus, Inter’s may well be too much. Integrating the likes of Radja Nainggolan, Sime Vrsaljko, Lautaro Martinez, Kwado Asamoah, Stefan de Vrij, Keita Balde and Matteo Politano was always going to be a long-term project, even before you account for Spalletti, a coach whose constant tinkering of systems and personnel can make it hard for his teams to find a rhythm.

And so the overall impression of Inter this season has been that of a team still searching for the right formula. Spalletti has already used 20 different players this season in those four games, only three of whom have started all four. Inter have lined up with three at the back and four at the back, with inverted wingers and conventional wingers, with the exceptional Mauro Icardi in the side and out of it. Once Inter do find the right balance, they will be a force indeed. Until then, they’ll need a lot of grit and a lot of patience.

There are vague signs of promise there. Nainggolan has looked dangerous in his two games, and if he can shake off the attentions of Eric Dier, then his threat from distance needs no introduction. Set pieces will be another key battleground, one where Spurs have looked exceptionally shaky at times this season.

Radja Nainggolan has impressed since signing from Roma
Radja Nainggolan has impressed since signing from Roma (Inter via Getty)

Equally, Inter have had problems of their own at the back this season, losing at home to Parma at the weekend after being hurt time and again on the break. Inter have the highest possession of any Serie A side this season, and that sort of game may well suit Tottenham better: winning the ball in midfield and then setting the pace of Lucas Moura on a defence that is still getting to terms with each other.

Spalletti has brushed off Inter’s indifferent start to the season, describing Tuesday’s game as the sort that can lift the entire mood around a club. “I believe this match is the chance to kick into gear,” he said. “It’s a competition that delivers extraordinary emotions that you can’t do without afterwards.” In a way, then, both teams are in the same boat: hoping that the special elixir of the Champions League can help them turn the page after a disappointing start.

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