When Pep Guardiola referred to Tottenham Hotspur as "the Harry Kane" team, there were people at the London club who did not know whether to laugh or cry. The Manchester City manager, after all, had been in charge of the Lionel Messi team at Barcelona.
Behind the scenes at Tottenham, amid the pot-and-kettle bitching, came a recollection from last season. Had they not beaten Guardiola’s City convincingly at White Hart Lane without the injured Kane?
Mauricio Pochettino almost always keeps his thoughts on this type of thing out of the public domain. Not this time. Last Friday the Spurs manager gave Guardiola both barrels, describing his comments as "disrespectful, sad and unnecessary" and making the point that his rival "struggles to be a gentleman" when on a winning roll. In other words, Guardiola can look down on others when he is riding high – as he and City are, at present.
Pochettino said he had never called Guardiola’s Barcelona “the Messi team” but, privately, he is under no illusions as to who was the orchestrator of their success. Barcelona have continued to win the major trophies with Messi and without Guardiola.
Yet, whichever way Tottenham dress it up, they are now at a juncture where the talismanic Kane has threatened to transcend them. Back when Michael Jordan was ruling the NBA, his Chicago Bulls team-mates were often referred to as his supporting cast, which felt a little harsh on the likes of Scottie Pippen and Horace Grant. Tottenham have Dele Alli (as the fans never tire of singing) and Christian Eriksen, among others, and Pochettino will promote the team ethic until his dying breath.
Right now, however, it is Kane's Tottenham, just as it was Jordan's Bulls or it is Messi's Barcelona and Cristiano Ronaldo's Real Madrid. The labels are the consequence of outstanding individual performance and they chime with these hype-driven times even if – from his side of the fence – Guardiola probably ought to have known better than to promote them.
From the moment that the final whistle blew on Apoel Nicosia 0 Kane 3 in the previous round of Champions League fixtures, it was obvious what would follow. Tottenham’s visit to the Bernabéu to face Real, which looms on Tuesday night, would be Kane versus Ronaldo.
The are plenty of other plot lines. It will be a sight for sore Tottenham eyes, for example, to see Luka Modric in a Real shirt, the midfielder having swapped clubs in 2012. Tottenham were, at least, able to secure a partnership agreement with Real at the time, although the most obvious product of that appeared to be Gareth Bale's move from White Hart Lane to the Bernabéu in 2013. Bale is a major doubt because of a calf injury.
For Kane, however, the opportunity to share the Bernabéu stage with Ronaldo will allow him to gauge his progress because everyone knows that the Portuguese is the benchmark – along with Messi. Moreover, Kane has made no secret of his ambition to rival the Big Two at the pinnacle of the game.
Pochettino sees certain similarities between Kane and Ronaldo, specifically in terms of their mentality. Pochettino has described Kane as “the best player in the world in terms of mental strength, willpower and endeavour”. Like Ronaldo, he is driven to better himself; to link his seasons; to use the previous one as the basis to improve the next.
What has delighted Pochettino is how Kane refuses to be satisfied. Some players might get distracted after one or two great seasons. Not Kane. He is always looking to finesse the finer details, such as recovery or nutrition – he revealed earlier in the month that he had hired a chef to cook his meals.
The result has been consistency and upward trends, with highs – such as his current 15 goals in 11 games for Tottenham and England hot streak – and no severe lows.
At Tottenham they say that Kane is in the best physical shape of his career and they know that because of the numbers. Pochettino and his coaches are obsessed by data, which is collated from training sessions and matches, and the detail of it is mind-boggling. With Kane, for example, they will monitor the volume and intensity of his accelerations, decelerations and sprints, together with many other things.
They can even determine if he has an imbalance in one leg. Kane might be above the required levels in both legs but if he can produce more power in one, there could be a problem. Pochettino and his coaches do not share the data with the players. It is for them alone and it allows them to judge how hard they should push the various members of the squad.
In training, where there is an emphasis on instilling patterns of movement in small, medium or large areas, the buzz phrase is practising the final ball or shot “under fatigue”. To Pochettino, the ability to repeat these decisive actions time and again, when tired, is all-important. He puts on drills that simulate the fatigue that a striker, for example, will feel at the end of a run and when he must gather himself to finish.
This is where Kane excels. He has built up such fitness and balance in his body that he feels he has the platform to score in the first or last minute of a game. There is even the belief at the club that Kane has come to look quicker because the efficiency of his movement and decision-making has improved. He also spoke after his hat-trick against Apoel of how “the more I play, the more I get a sense of what defenders will do at certain times”.
Kane was a 17-year-old hopeful, on loan at Leyton Orient, when Tottenham last visited the Bernabéu. It was April 2011; the tie was the Champions League quarter-final first leg and Ronaldo scored in a 4-0 Real win. This time, Kane intends to make his mark.