‘Argentino’ Pochettino can’t wait to feel the heat in Greece
Spurs boss relishing trip as 2019 runners-up kick off campaign
Mauricio Pochettino: “I don’t care what people think – if we are contenders or not.” Photograph: Panagiotis Moschandreou/EPA
Champions League Group B: Olympiakos v Tottenham Hotspur
Kick-off: 5.55pm, Wednesday. Venue: Karaiskakis Stadium. On TV: Virgin Media One and BT Sport 2.
Mauricio Pochettino has waited three-and-a-half months for this moment. At various times, particularly in the weeks that followed Tottenham’s Champions League final defeat against Liverpool on June 1st, the club’s manager has been beset by frustration and regret.
To many on the outside – and possibly even some of those on the inside of the squad that Pochettino has assembled – it was a once-in-a-lifetime shot. And it went begging. The hard truth was that Spurs never looked like winning in Madrid, even though Liverpool were below their best.
The only way to forget is to rebuild, to enjoy fresh adventures, and Pochettino made the point that he could hardly have picked a better place to begin the healing process and his fourth Champions League campaign with Spurs than Olympiakos’s Karaiskakis Stadium – one of the wildest, most atmospheric venues on the continent. “I am Argentino,” Pochettino said, with a smile. “I love to play in this atmosphere, when the fans are tough.
“To be honest, I was thinking a lot about the final in Madrid during the summer – to finish that way is always so painful. You can’t put the feeling of losing the last game of the season [to one side] and you have to wait to repair the damage. But it’s so exciting to start a new campaign here in Greece. When you are a professional, you wait for these type of games.”
Spurs’s run to the final last season came as a surprise, not least because they were on the brink of elimination numerous times and, this time, there is the sense that few people fancy them to go all the way. Pochettino’s message is one of realism and yet, at the same time, he knows what is possible when everybody is pulling in the same direction.
It was put to Pochettino that with three key players in the final year of their contracts – Jan Vertonghen, Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen – it could be this team’s last hurrah. He does not doubt their commitment.
“The trust is massive and all that was affecting different players is now in the past,” Pochettino said. “At the end of the season, we will see what happens [with those players]. We are focused on trying to perform. No one today will make us one of the contenders to be in the final but that is normal. The most important is to show our quality. I don’t care what people think – if we are contenders or not.”
Pochettino’s mood has improved since the closure of the European transfer window and there was a freedom of expression from his team in the 4-0 home win over Crystal Palace on Saturday. Previously, there was encouragement in the 2-2 draw at Arsenal and, piece by piece, momentum is being built, which Pochettino hopes to maintain against Olympiakos, even with a changed lineup. The manager feels compelled to rotate as he addresses the second of seven games in 21 days; he has left Serge Aurier and Danny Rose in London.
Olympiakos had to make it through three rounds of qualification to reach the group stage after finishing second in the Greek championship, and their record in all competitions this season is eight wins out of nine, with one draw and only one goal conceded. They remain without their leading striker, Kostas Fortounis, who is injured, but Pochettino and the Spurs captain, Hugo Lloris, said they were wary of the threat posed by the French forward Mathieu Valbuena.
It is about what Spurs do and a positive start would be welcome. Pochettino joked that he would sign for a repeat of last season, when they took one point from the first three group ties and still went on to make club history, but it is sometimes forgotten that they qualified for the last 16 only after Internazionale failed to beat PSV Eindhoven. Pochettino wants to leave nothing to chance.