Pochettino plays down pressure before Sheffield United semi-final
Spurs manager recalls fearing for his life when playing in South America
Tottenham Hotspur’s manager Mauricio Pochettino: his experiences in the Copa Libertadores mean he is not unduly worried by a trip to face Sheffield United at Bramall Lane. Photograph: Andrew Winning/Reuters
Sitting in the pristine environment of Tottenham’s training ground, where everything is clean and serenely quiet, Mauricio Pochettino goes through the motions of discussing how his team might approach the second leg of their Capital One Cup tie at Sheffield United.
Then his eyes light up, his expressions gain warmth and passion, as he recalls the mayhem he experienced as a young player tackling a shuddering semi-final in South America. Suffice it to say, the experience means he is not overly alarmed about a trip to Bramall Lane.
Pochettino vividly remembers the detail of the notorious Copa Libertadores semi-final he took part in back in 1992. His team, Newell’s Old Boys, travelled north from Argentina to Colombia for a second leg against America de Cali, having drawn 1-1 in the opening match.
“It’s difficult to play in Colombia. I remember going up the tunnel to the pitch and they started to throw batteries. Before the game my team-mate got hit and cut on the head, it was very tough,” he explains. “You go to these countries to play Copa Libertadores or World Cup qualifiers. I remember every time we drove from the airport all the glass on the bus was smashed. It was always crazy with the army, military people, police.
Pochettino and his team- mates had to contend with crackling antagonism from the Colombian crowd and some wild challenges on the pitch. The game ended level, with Pochettino having put his side in front with a header, and it boiled down to a shoot-out. “We won after 24 penalties,” says Pochettino.
The Newell’s players celebrated in an almighty bundle, having thrived in an environment where they were so palpably unwelcome. “If I can cope with that, we can cope with anything,” he says.
He doesn’t miss that extreme tension and explosiveness. He knows his family used to worry about him when he went on these dangerous excursions around Latin America.
“Life here is better, more comfortable,” he says. “Maybe it’s normal that the supporters shout at you, but in Argentina it’s impossible to have the supporters close behind you [in the dugout]. Because saliva, they throw things, radios, mobiles, it’s dangerous. But in England the respect is massive. I think football is to be enjoyed, for families, no violence.”
“Our fans expect us to arrive at the final at Wembley,” he says. “But we need to play better than Sheffield, show more energy than Sheffield and try to fight. For me we need to go there thinking it is 0-0. I believe we will need to score. We have to forget about the first leg and show the mentality to win.”
Mindful of the spate of shocks in the FA Cup last weekend, with Bradford City and Middlesbrough in particular flying the flag so fervently for lower-league clubs, he urges Tottenham’s players to find the balance between being “careful” and “playing freely”.
Michel Vorm is expected to continue in goal despite a late blunder against Leicester which ended Tottenham’s participation in this season’s FA Cup. Harry Kane, who was on the bench against them, should return to the front line in place of Roberto Soldado. Guardian Service