Do or die for Spurs in Mauricio Pochettino’s favourite old haunt
Argentinian still owns a house just north of Barcelona since managing Espnayol
Tottenham Hotspur players train at the Nou Camp ahead of their Champions League Group B clash with Barcelona. Photo: Joan Monfort/AP Photo
Champions League Group B: Barcelona v Tottenham Hotspur
Kick off: 8pm. Venue: Nou Camp. On TV: Virgin Media Sports and BT Sport 3.
Mauricio Pochettino calls it his town and whenever his all-consuming schedule permits, he invariably heads back there. The Tottenham manager first moved to Barcelona as a 22-year-old in 1994, when he joined Espanyol from Newell’s Old Boys in his native Argentina as a player, and it is the place where he feels centred and relaxed; full of positive energy.
Pochettino still has a house in the north of the city, close to the mountain range, and his set-up is certainly appealing. He can go for a run along the stunning Carretera de las Aigues, as he has done since the Espanyol days – mixing fitness with contemplation – while the sea, weather and restaurants are obvious attractions. Pochettino likes to eat out with his wife, Karina, who is a qualified chef.
What Pochettino loves most about Barcelona is its manageable size. Unlike London, he can get to places quickly, enabling him to cram a lot of things into a day. When he became the manager at Espanyol and would spend 10-12 hours at the training ground, there was always the possibility of nipping out into the centre for a lunch.
Barcelona just works for Pochettino and it holds so many memories for him. Both of his sons were born here while, on the field, he won two Copa Del Reys as an Espanyol player before making the transition into management at the club.
Pochettino could feel the pull of his personal history when he touched down at El Prat airport yesterday afternoon – it was inevitable – but it is what happens next that has him in thrall. Standing between him and the knockout phase of the Champions League are Barcelona, the club that he has long aligned himself against. Pochettino has said on more than one occasion that he could never manage them due to his Espanyol connections.
Spurs have to match the result that Internazionale manage against PSV Eindhoven in Milan, which most people expect will be a win. And so, deep breath, this is how Pochettino has dreamed it – he will beat Barcelona on their own turf and advance in style.
Pochettino has done it before. In February 2009, a month or so after his appointment as the Espanyol manager, he took his team to the Camp Nou in La Liga. They were down at the botom; Barcelona up at the top. Yet Espanyol surprised their rivals by pressing them high and they would triumph 2-1. It was the first victory of Pochettino’s managerial career and it ignited a successful push for survival. In nine other visits to Camp Nou as a player and manager, he has lost each time.
The big news yesterday was that Pochettino’s counterpart, Ernesto Valverde, intends to make changes to his Barcelona lineup. Some Spanish newspapers predicted they would be wholesale and two that have been virtually confirmed are the omissions of the regular goalkeeper, Marc-André ter Stegen, and the striker, Luis Suárez, who has only just returned from injury. Barcelona are already assured of top spot in Group B. Why take risks?
There are question marks over whether Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Ivan Rakitic, among others, will start while Valverde refused to be drawn on his intentions over Lionel Messi. “You’ll know in 24 hours,” he said. Pochettino accepted that Suárez would be an “important miss” and it was easy to feel that Valverde’s likely lineup represented a marginal gain for Spurs. Pochettino, though, would have none of that.
“The quality in their squad is massive,” he said. “It’s difficult to fight for a place with Suárez and Messi, and whoever plays will be very motivated to show they can compete for more minutes. We are going to be ready to compete in our best condition, I’m so optimistic and we need to think like this. It’s so important that we think about the job we want to do, not what Barcelona want to do.”
Pochettino confirmed that the 21-year-old, Kyle Walker-Peters, would make his full Champions League debut at right-back, because of groin injuries to Kieran Trippier and Serge Aurier. The manager might have shuffled around his more experienced players and used Eric Dier, for example, in the position but he radiated the sort of conviction regarding Walker-Peters that he wants his team to show.
“I want to remind you that Walker-Peters won the Under-20 World Cup in Korea last year and his quality is unbelievable,” Pochettino said. “You need to trust young players. To play in the Nou Camp will make him stronger but, most importantly, we trust in him whatever happens. He will be a success, for sure, in the long term for this club.”
Walker-Peters aside, Pochettino’s lineup will bristle with experience. The captain, Hugo Lloris, was a World Cup winner with France in July and there will be players alongside him from the England and Belgium teams that reached the semi-finals. Nerve, patience and game-management will be key, together with the eradication of individual errors. Pochettino, who said he would keep abreast of the scoreline in Milan, knows that his team deserved more from the away ties against Inter and PSV but they did not get it and so it has come down to this. For him, it could scarcely be primed more tantalisingly. A defining occasion looms. – Guardain service