Gareth Bale's hat-trick at the San Siro set in turn a chain of events that would eventually see Tottenham become regulars in Europe's premier competition
A date with Inter Milan in the Champions League conjures magical memories for Spurs
The very fact the fixture has such history feels progress in itself. Tottenham Hotspur went almost half a century without appearing in Europe’s premier club competition. Now the mere mention of Inter Milan prompts thoughts of Gareth Bale’s breakthrough hat-trick. Taxi for Maicon, and all that.
Spurs’ last Uefa Champions League dates with the Nerazzurri came under Harry Redknapp. It has been Mauricio Pochettino’s achievement to turn them into regulars on this stage, to normalise matches with Inter and Juventus, Real Madrid and Barcelona, Borussia Dortmund and Monaco. It has made him a transformational manager, the first in English football since Roberto Mancini to take a club who were not accustomed to Champions League qualification and secure it on an annual basis. The Argentine has done so with a rather lesser net spend.
The debate about the merits of top-four finishes versus trophies remains unresolved. At its most simplistic level, it can be used to pretend Pochettino has not done a fine job. He has, as a reshaped pecking order proves. Yet the fact that a loss at San Siro would condemn Tottenham to three consecutive defeats for the first time since Tim Sherwood’s reign feels significant. Some of their good work has been undone in the last two league games, setbacks against Watford and Liverpool turning a 100 per cent start into a cause for concern. With Harry Kane toiling, Spurs are not brimming with energy in true Pochettino-esque fashion. What is often a well-oiled machine is spluttering. Some of the parts, perhaps, could do with replacing.
But Tottenham, infamously, became the first Premier League club in 15 years to complete a summer transfer window without making a single signing. Continuity has offered Spurs some advantages, especially when others spend incoherently, but they can be cancelled out when rivals advance. Those who stand still can actually be going backwards.
Certainly Tottenham have looked increasingly reliant on Pochettino’s tactics in their quest for an edge. They could neither outwit nor outplay Liverpool on Saturday, just as a switch to 3-5-2 at Vicarage Road backfired. The choice of a midfield diamond meant Spurs needed their full-backs to advance but when they did, it risked leaving two centre-backs against Liverpool’s formidable front three, with too much space in the channel outside either. Eric Dier, meanwhile, was an odd choice on the right of that diamond.
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But then the search for a midfielder was a theme of Spurs’ barren summer. Chairman Daniel Levy’s quest to bring in four players failed, seemingly amid a suspicion excessive prices were being quoted. Yet, while Tottenham have prospered on a budget in recent years, a quest for value for money can become a false economy.
Inter may be their antithesis, a club with a tradition of spending lavishly, if not always wisely. They have their expensive midfield addition, in Radja Nainggolan, the sort of visible display of ambition that Spurs lack. They are also a club who have often underachieved since their 2010 meetings with Tottenham; the opposite could be said for the Londoners.
Perhaps not for much longer, though. Football clubs’ problem can be that they do not exist in isolation, but in a context created by their peers. Tottenham finished ahead of Liverpool eight times in nine seasons but, with the Merseysiders making a series of sizeable signings and boasting greater strength in depth, the balance of power seems to be shifting. Saturday felt a microcosm of a season in that respect. Factor in Chelsea’s immediate improvement under Maurizio Sarri and Tottenham feel imperilled in England. A second successive tough draw in Europe suggests they are under attack on all fronts.
If Redknapp’s Tottenham arguably reached their highest point with their home win over Inter, Pochettino’s peak perhaps came last year, when Real were beaten. His capacity to improve players brought a sense of endless possibilities. Perhaps not now, with the financial realities setting in and the parameters narrowing. And yet it still represents something to savour that Spurs are facing Inter on this stage.