Against the odds, Pochettino works a miracle
Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino was overcome by emotion after the extraordinary Champions League semi-final victory over Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday and who could blame him?
Few managers have had to deal with what Pochettino has this season — from being the only European club to make no signings in consecutive transfer windows to playing home games at Wembley because of delays in the completion of the club’s new stadium.
On top of that, many of Tottenham’s squad were involved deep into the World Cup finals with England, Belgium and France and it showed in recent weeks when the losses started piling up, with players running on fumes.
Tottenham arrived in Amsterdam on the back of three successive defeats and with top striker Harry Kane watching from the stands as he recovers from an ankle injury sustained in the first leg of Tottenham’s quarter-final win over Manchester City.
At halftime on Wednesday they looked down and out with Ajax, already 1-0 up after the first leg, leading 2-0 thanks to goals by Matthijs de Ligt and Hakim Ziyech.
But Tottenham, once mocked by rival fans for being soft-centred, showed immense spirit and forced their way back into their first European Cup semi-final for 57 years.
Lucas Moura, who would not even have been playing had Kane been fit, wrote himself into Tottenham folklore with a 35-minute hat-trick to send the away fans into delirium and Pochettino into floods of tears.
Tottenham’s Champions League campaign had looked all but over after they picked up one point from their first three group games.
They needed late winners in consecutive games against PSV Eindhoven and Inter Milan and a draw in Barcelona, earned with Moura’s goal, to get into the knockout phase.
Now, after knocking out Borussia Dortmund, Manchester City and Ajax, they can look forward to taking on Liverpool on June 1 in their first final in European club football’s top competition.
“CLOSE TO A MIRACLE”
Pochettino said on the eve of the Ajax second leg that it would be a miracle if Tottenham won the Champions League and that he might decide to do something else if they pulled it off.
Tottenham fans will hope he was only joking but if Spurs do upset the odds again in Madrid and Pochettino does depart, he would do so ranked up alongside Bill Nicolson on the club’s list of all-time managerial greats.
“I think it’s one of the most important nights in my life,” Pochettino, who joined Tottenham in 2014 and is on the verge of sealing a fourth successive top-four finish, told reporters.
“I think (the players) are super heroes now. To get the club to the final of the Champions League I think is very close to a miracle. No one believed in us from the start of the season.”
With fewer resources than the rest of England’s top six, not to mention the likes of European heavyweights like Barcelona and Real Madrid,Pochettino has had to extract every last drop of value from his squad.
Moura, the last signing Tottenham made in January last year, has often been a bit-part player but when called upon has been a vital option for Pochettino.
Likewise experienced Spanish striker Fernando Llorente, whose introduction at halftime on Wednesday helped muscle Tottenham back into contention.
Moussa Sissoko, whose energy drove Tottenham forward in the second half, is another player who has thrived under Pochettino after initially being written off.
Whatever happens in Madrid, Tottenham are punching well above their weight in terms of investment and it is something of whichPochettino is rightly proud.
“Without Harry Kane many people were talking about Sonny (Son Heung-min) but today it was Lucas Moura who scored three goals and you know if you don’t respect all the players, you cannot only have 11 players,” Pochettino said.
“You can have some players who can win some games but to be in the Champions League final you need 24 or 25 and the relationship must always be honest with everyone.
“In moments when you need them, they need to give their best.”
REUTERS/Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Nick Mulvenney