Daunting challenge from Barcelona awaits understrength Spurs side who failed to bring in new players in summer
Injury-marred Tottenham faced with prospect of early Uefa Champions League exit
It is the sort of scenario that has felt all too predictable since Tottenham Hotspur made history in the summer.
There is a theory that those who are not standing still are actually going backwards. Rather than progressing in the Uefa Champions League, Spurs risk regressing.
“We are working hard to keep the level and compete,” Mauricio Pochettino said. “We must feel strong.”
But a team deprived of additions are severely weakened, facing Lionel Messi and Barcelona with the boost of Hugo Lloris’ return being offset by six absentees. “We are not in good luck with injuries,” Pochettino said.
The ever loyal Harry Kane was supportive, saying: “We’ve got some great players as well.”
Yet if it may not matter that Lloris’ deputy Michel Vorm is sidelined, it is rather more significant that Jan Vertonghen, Mousa Dembele and Serge Aurier are missing, and still more so that Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are unavailable.
Eleven months ago, Tottenham welcomed the other of Spain’s duopoly to Wembley. The reigning and eventual European champions Real Madrid were beaten, but the three goals came from Alli and Eriksen.
If there will be no encore from the scorers, it renders a repeat result improbable and not merely because, as Kane said: “Barcelona might play better than Real Madrid did last season.”
The Madrid game was arguably Spurs’ greatest Champions League night. Topping it was never going to be easy.
“The evolution of the team is there and everyone can appreciate that and see it,” Pochettino insisted, though Spurs have not hit the same high notes. He was dissatisfied with aspects of the 3-0 win over Manchester United, this season’s flagship result, and a recent revival has been based on grit.
“It’s the most difficult season for us,” Pochettino added. “Now you cannot motivate in the same way you did a year ago.”
It illustrated the way the World Cup changed careers – but also brought tired legs – and while the wait to return to White Hart Lane is a cause of difficulty, so was the inability to strengthen. It is pertinent that midfielders – Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish in particular – figured prominently on Pochettino’s wishlist.
But Tottenham became the first Premier League club in 15 years to fail to bring anyone in during a summer window. They may suffer now. It could be a false economy that costs them a place in the Champions League.
There are other causes, like snatching defeat from the jaws of victory against Inter Milan two weeks ago, but if Pochettino refused to use the lengthy injury list as an excuse – “I won’t be the victim in football or life,” he said – Spurs risk becoming casualties of a group of death.
Not that Pochettino was as negative as he struck an upbeat tone.
“Be optimistic and be happy and smile when you go on the pitch,” he said. “Football is not a drama but always it’s about being focused, competitive and enjoying playing against the best player in the world.”
So Wednesday night’s clash sets up an intriguing comparison between Messi and Kane, who has been open about his ambition to reach the Argentine’s level. “He’s set the standard,” the World Cup’s top scorer said.
“He and [Cristiano] Ronaldo have gone above the normal standard set by people in years gone past, [with] 50-60 goals a season. As a striker I want to try to match that.”
Three goals in two games signalled a return to form and Kane said: “I feel great.”
Yet, without Alli and Eriksen, Spurs look more reliant on him and, while the new pitch for the new White Hart Lane arrived on Tuesday, the danger is it could be hosting Europa League football in the new year.