Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham Hotspur manager, has no hesitation in describing the challenge in front of his players at Real Madrid this evening as a rite of passage. “Until you play Madrid at the Bernabeu, it’s as if you haven’t been baptised,” he told the Spanish newspaper AS. “There’s something very special you only feel when you in that stadium.”
Pochettino, expert at developing the young and ambitious, is curious to see how many in his team deal with the aura of the place. He himself has always found it a devilishly hard arena. When he went there as a player, in the centre of Espanyol’s defence, there were two things he learned to expect: a booking – Pochettino the stopper collected many – at some stage, as he tried to marshall the clever movements of the likes of Raul, the legendary Madrid striker of the 1990s and 2000s; and, almost always, a defeat.
Five times he trooped off the field with Espanyol beaten. Pochettino and his current assistant at Spurs, the former Espanyol goalkeeper Toni Jimenez can, and do, look back fondly on one exception, the April 1996 day they went to Madrid and won.
Pochettino the manager was in charge of Espanyol for the better part of four years. And the record at the Bernabeu is bleak. Three visits between 2009 and 2012, three defeats, no goals scored and 11 conceded. He got used to a pattern: Cristiano Ronaldo would score in the first half, and then there would be a cascade of goals.
If Tottenham leave the Spanish capital with Ronaldo still behind Kane – the Portuguese has four goals in two games, Kane has five – on the ladder of Champions League marksmen for the season so far, they will have achieved something. Keep pace with Madrid at the top of the group, where both teams have six points, and the next phase of the competition, which Spurs failed to reach last season, can be glimpsed.
The manager will not mind either that many madridistas look at the visit of Spurs and see an audition: Dele Alli, enthusiastically linked to Madrid by various agents vying to represent him, will not be giving one: He is suspended.
But Kane’s prolific past two years make him a subject of keen, sincere interest to a club who have sat around the negotiating table with Spurs before – to buy Luka Modric and Gareth Bale – and if they found the haggling over those purchases long and attritional, they recognise Spurs as a talent factory, one Pochettino has further cultivated in the period since Modric and Bale left London.
Madrid have been tending to their own blossoming nursery, too. Quite apart from the two European Cups he has won, and the league title in his first full campaign as a senior manager, Zinedine Zidane’s 22 months in charge have made Madrid younger and a little more Spanish.
Six Madrid players have just helped steer Spain to their confirmed place at the next World Cup, including young men matured under Zidane, like defender Nacho, the nimble forward Lucas Vazquez and the outstanding Marco Asensio.
Isco’s brilliance these past three months for club and country ensures the regular absences though injury of Bale – another muscle problem means he will not play against Spurs – now cause less panic than weary resignation.
Pochettino the player spent some hard evenings chasing the mercurial Zidane on the field, when Madrid took on Espanyol in Pochettino’s second stint in La Liga. They were very distinct footballers, the one steel the other all silk. As managers, they have perhaps more in common as fine guides to the up-and-coming and youthful.
“Zidane has made everybody in the dressing-room feel important, which is not easy at a big club like this,” says Modric, who in five years at Madrid has taken instructions from Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Rafa Benitez and Zidane.
“He has charisma, which makes it pleasure to work with him.”
Modric left Tottenham for Madrid seeking major prizes. His four years in London gave him just one Champions League campaign, and it ended in an uncomfortable baptism at the Bernabeu, Spurs beaten 4-0 in a quarter-final second leg.
The Tottenham of Pochettino look a sturdier creation.
“As a club, Spurs have improved a lot,” Modric told reporters after Saturday’s 2-1 win at Getafe.
“They have made bigger investments in their squad and now compete for the Premier League and absolutely deserve to be up there.”
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