Tottenham vs Inter Milan: To plateau or to progress, Spurs' sense of self-worth is on the line

For all the achievements of Mauricio Pochettino, two Champions League group stage exits from three European campaigns would not constitute progress

Jonathan Liew
Chief Sports Writer
Tuesday 27 November 2018 13:50
Mauricio Pochettino praises his team after Tottenham's 3-0 win over Chelsea

The only man to win a Champions League knockout game as the manager of Tottenham Hotspur was last seen on ITV drinking a smoothie made from pig’s penises. Harry Redknapp may have swapped the dugout for the 'I’m A Celebrity' jungle, but unless Spurs can beat Inter Milan at Wembley on Wednesday, his achievement of reaching the last eight in 2011 will remain intact for another year.

For Spurs, elimination at the group stage with a game to spare would be a humbling blow, rendering their much-anticipated trip to Barcelona in a fortnight little more than a sightseeing visit. Even the two consolation prizes - the relative luxury of being able to focus their energies on the Premier League, and a potential tilt at the Europa League in the spring - rather unhelpfully cancel each other out.

And quite apart from the short-term disappointment and the financial hit, you suspect the main damage would be to Tottenham's sense of self-worth. For a club that has made resounding strides over recent years, failure to progress to the knockout stages for the second time in three seasons would severely dent their claim to being a part of Europe’s elite. The Football Leaks disclosure that Tottenham were not a part of the recent discussions over a breakaway European Super League reinforces the notion that they are still, to a large extent, a club on the outside looking in.

On a sporting level, an early elimination would also buttress the sense that the Mauricio Pochettino era at Tottenham is plateauing rather than progressing. Three qualifications for the first time in the club’s history is a seriously impressive achievement. But even a man as eternally optimistic as Pochettino would struggle to dress up two group stage exits and a last-16 defeat as success.

Even a win at Wembley on Wednesday would probably still require Tottenham to claim three points at the Nou Camp, given that Inter’s last game is at home against fourth-placed PSV Eindhoven. But for now, and by a thread, Tottenham’s fate remains just about in their own hands. And coming on the back of the spectacular 3-1 win against Chelsea on Saturday night, a new optimism is beginning to seep through the club, a feeling that, once more as before, Pochettino’s side are in the mood for pulling off something improbable.

Another group stage exit would make it harder for Pochettino to argue Spurs are progressing 

In their way: an Inter Milan side who can play like champions or cretins, often in the same week, occasionally in the same half. Their last four Serie A results have seen resounding thumpings of Lazio (3-0), Genoa (5-0) and Frosinone (3-0), either side of a horrid 4-1 defeat at Atalanta in which, remarkably, Inter had goalkeeper Samir Handanovic to thank for saving them from even graver humiliation. And in many ways, a certain skittishness is part of the furniture at this club, a problem that predates their manager Luciano Spalletti, who has nevertheless managed to return the Nerazzurri to the upper reaches of the table with the help of a gifted but mercurial cast.

Mauro Icardi, who scored Inter’s crushing late equaliser in the initial fixture at the San Siro, will again be the main threat to Tottenham’s defence, having been ominously rested at the weekend. But it’s a measure of Inter’s effectiveness this season that they have managed to produce goals from all over the pitch. Thirteen different players have scored for them this season; watch out in particular for the mercurial Radja Nainggolan, who has the knack of driving coaches to the wall with his inconsistency, but who has shown signs in recent weeks of being close to his best.

Expect Inter’s approach to be more reactive than the possession-based style seen in Serie A this season. With no need to force the game, and with the pace of Icardi, Ivan Perisic and Lautaro Martinez up front, Inter will take their chances on the counter, and hope to drown Tottenham in their own soapy angst. “At the big teams, there’s more exasperation for picking up results,” Spalletti said last week. “That creates additional toxins in the muscles.”

That exasperation is something Tottenham know well. Six of the nine goals they have conceded in the competition this season have come in the first and last five minutes, an unusual statistic that hints at a certain fatalism at key moments, a tendency to get swept up in the mood of a game. Re-raising themselves after the high of Saturday night, and with a North London derby to come this weekend, will be no easy task. But unless they manage to find something approaching their best football at Wembley, they will meet with a fate broadly similar to that of their former manager: cast into the wilderness, and with a rather unpleasant taste in the mouth.

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