Champions League: Mauricio Pochettino's Tottenham suffered stage fright against Liverpool, but it's not end of road for club
Nerves may have blunted their patterns of play but Spurs did not lose to Liverpool because there was a considerable gap in quality.
After the final whistle, there was much to be said about the pride that Tottenham Hotspur took in the journey that the club had undertaken over the past few months. And what a joyride it was. Spurs turned the unlikely into the possible and the impossible into miraculous.
That was until Saturday. There will be plenty of regret in the camp that the miraculous joyride had come to an end in Amsterdam. There was not to be another season of this hugely dramatic show. In the long history of Tottenham, there had never been a contest like the Champions League final. It was a prospect that many Spurs fans would have laughed off even a few months ago. But when Tottenham finally got there, the players suffered a case of stage fright. Perhaps it was understandable but that would not have helped the disappointment.
The sense that Spurs players were overawed by the occasion arrived earlier in the evening than most would have predicted.
It took only a minute for Moussa Sissoko to lift his arm carelessly in the box and, in the era of VAR, it was not the wisest move. The ball went on to strike his hand off the chest; Liverpool got a penalty. As manager Mauricio Pochettino admitted later that there was no way he could have prepared his team for the situation. “You can never believe you will be 1-0 down after a minute. Mentally it was very tough,” he added.
But there were still more than 90 minutes to play. And Spurs had already shown courage in the face of similar adversity against Manchester City and Ajax. Pochettino was keen to stress afterward that playing well or tactics did not matter much in the final equation. Rather, a title clash is about winning above everything else. Liverpool emerged the winner on Saturday night, and not Spurs, because the Reds had the nous and the experience of last year’s final that gave them the edge in tense moments.
And they arrived with increased frequency as the night went on. After an hour had passed away, Spurs finally woke up from their slumber to raise the pressure by a few notches. Even as others laboured, Son Heung-min roused himself to threaten the parsimonious Liverpool defence. While the clock tumbled towards the 90-minute mark, Spurs looked keen to force the issue. Unfortunately for the North London club, though, the response was belated.
Perhaps the defeat will steel Tottenham for the challenges ahead. Pochettino certainly suggested that he would like to reach the final again with the club. But for that to be a more reasonable outcome, Spurs will have to be strengthened. It is not that the Tottenham players on the pitch at the Metropolitano Stadium in Madrid were in any way deficient. Nerves may have blunted their patterns of play but Spurs did not lose to Liverpool because there was a considerable gap in quality.
Rather, the next campaign will pose challenges for which Pochettino will require different or new options. For Spurs to keep up with their illustrious opponents abroad, Pochettino’s incredible qualities as a coach will come handy but it will be almost impossible to repeat his masterful navigation of the current campaign with another summer of zero signings.
The fans, despite the defeat, will continue to keep faith in his method. And as hard as it may seem for Spurs to return to a similar stage anytime soon, the future is rosier than many may think. If Spurs do respond to the impositions of the market that are in full force today, strength in depth may unlock the route to major silverware.
Perhaps, a useful starting point could be to dispel talk of departures. Toby Alderweireld, Christian Eriksen, and Kieran Trippier have all been touted for sale by various rumour mills although it seems very unlikely that anybody but Alderweireld might leave. The Belgian defender has been mooted for an impending exit for a while, but he continues to be a regular member of the starting eleven.
However it pans out over the next few months, Spurs fans can be optimistic that a return to the same stage will not take as long as it did the first time. Through the course of this season’s Champions League, the team has established that it is not an unlikely contender on the continental level. With its financial resources and coaching personnel, Tottenham can belong to the greatest triumphs. Unfortunately for the club, the players could not articulate that reality on Saturday. But this season suggests the club has not reached the end of the road.
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