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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 April 2019

Mauricio Pochettino knows more than most - there's no such thing as a 'weakened' Barcelona

With Barca already guaranteed top spot of Champions League Group B, Tottenham hope to secure a better result than Inter Milan to join them in the last 16

Mauricio Pochettino knows only too well Barcelona rarely field a weak side, as he learnt from his days managing city rivals Espanyol. Reuters
Mauricio Pochettino knows only too well Barcelona rarely field a weak side, as he learnt from his days managing city rivals Espanyol. Reuters

The first time Mauricio Pochettino took a team to Camp Nou as a manager, he had one or two reasons for the kind of optimism an away fixture against Barcelona usually suppresses. He felt fairly sure Barca would not be lining up their best XI.

The occasion was a local derby. It was only Pochettino’s third match as a senior coach. He had just taken over Espanyol, and was in the very infancy of a stellar career in management. Plunged into the job in mid-season, mid-crisis, he had started well, by holding Barcelona to a goalless draw in the first leg of a Copa del Rey quarter-final. This was the decider.

The ominous news, as he arrived at Camp Nou that January evening in 2009, was that Lionel Messi was in the team. The better news was that Messi’s partners in attack were not Thierry Henry and Samuel Eto’o, the world-beaters on the staff at the time, but Eidur Gudjohnsen, reliable but strictly a reserve, and Bojan Krkic, age 18. Barca's back-up, goalkeeper, Pinto, was in goal and the left flank was manned by Sylvinho and Alex Hleb, players who expected first XI outings only on low-priority midweek evenings or when the injury and suspension list was very long.

The bad news for Espanyol that night? Bojan scored twice within the first 48 minutes and this supposedly weakened Barcelona had a 3-0 lead before Pochettino’s side found their gears to reply, pluckily but inadequately, with two goals of their own.

There are lessons in all that for Tuesday, when Pochettino returns to the city where he spent many formative years as an Espanyol player and then manager in charge of a fired-up Tottenham Hostpur. He will know that however many players Barcelona choose to rest, in a Uefa Champions League group game as inconsequential for the home side's uncatchable position atop the mini-league as it is critical for Pochettino’s Spurs, there is no accurate gauge about what constitutes a "weakened" Barca.

His Espanyol learned that less a month after they had been knocked out of the Copa del Rey by their apparently second-string neighbours. Pochettino went back to Camp Nou for a Liga derby three and half weeks later, were confronted with Henry, Eto’o and Messi, and, against the odds, won 2-1.

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Read more:

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Almost 10 years on, Pochettino can expect Barca to dilute their most potent mix of talents, because, with top of Group B already theirs, they can. Ernesto Valverde, their manager, insists he will “honour the integrity of the competition,” mindful that Tottenham and Inter Milan - who host PSV Eindhoven - are joined on points in the battle for second place in Group B, but there will certainly be some fresher faces involved.

The danger for Spurs is that among them are young men, such as midfielder Carles Alena, officially promoted to the first-team squad last week, who are keen to challenge the idea that Barca’s academy is not quite the rich resource it was a decade ago, when Pochettino was living and working in a city where, both at Espanyol and at Barcelona, homegrown excellence was considered an envy-of-the-world Catalan speciality. Alena looks highly promising, as does 19-year-old Riqui Puig.

Tottenham, who after Matchday 3 were marooned on just one point, have made a rousing comeback to put themselves a win - perhaps less, should Inter not beat PSV - but may still be obliged to confront hard truths about the relative strength in depth of Champions League heavyweights, such as Barcelona, and themselves.

If Barca rest their No 1 keeper, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, they can call on the first-choice gloveman for the Netherlands, Jasper Cillessen. An injured centre-half at Barca - Samuel Umtiti is out - means Valverde making a choice between the €35 million (Dh147m) summer signing Clement Lenglet or Thomas Vermaelen, who has more than 70 caps for Belgium. An injured centre-half for Spurs - Davinson Sanchez is out - means Pochettino keeping his fingers crossed nothing hampers Toby Alderweireld or Jan Vertonghen, given that the youthful Juan Foyth, the cover, is not registered for the Champions League.

Pochettino will have his best attacking weapons available, however, and among those is one player Barcelona would certainly find room for, Christian Eriksen. He and Harry Kane were rested with this trip in mind for all but the last quarter of the victory over Leicester City on Saturday, and Son Heung-min is running into form.

“We are in good condition for a massive game for us,” said Pochettino, “but we won’t get any presents from Barcelona.” This manager knows that from experience.

Updated: December 11, 2018 08:29 AM

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