“You know me, I am so optimistic,” said Mauricio Pochettino at Wembley last night. He was trying to explain why he remained bullish on his Tottenham Hotspur team pulling off the great escape and getting out of their Champions League group. Even though they took one point from their first three games.
Their path from here to the last-16 draw is visible, if treacherous. Beat Inter Milan, preferably by two goals or more, here at Wembley on 28 November. Then go to Barcelona and win there, or draw, if Inter manage to lose to PSV at San Siro. The bigger picture still looks unlikely. But the second step, lit up by victory on Tuesday, looks very doable.
Because Spurs have absolutely nothing to fear from Inter. Look back at that game Spurs lost 2-1 in Milan on 18 September. A disastrous result in the context of a group this tight. But not a bad performance. Spurs were in total control of the second half after Christian Eriksen’s deflected goal put them ahead. It was only Mauro Icardi’s wonderstrike from nowhere that cost them the win.
Two months on, if Spurs play like they can against Inter at Wembley, they will win the game. They are a better team with better players – all due respect to Icardi – and more experience at this level. And Pochettino knows it.
“Now we focus on Saturday of course, but in the Champions League we focus on Inter Milan,” he said. “I think we were so close to winning that game [in September]. We deserved more in Milan. I think we played better than them, and were a bit unlucky in the situation when we conceded. But we can beat them. I am so optimistic.”
And Tottenham’s chances of winning that game are even higher if they continue their current good form the far side of the international break. There has been a definite upturn in Spurs since the October internationals, and they have now won three tricky games in a row: West Ham away, Wolves at home and PSV. It has enormously helped that Eriksen and Dele Alli are back in the side after each missing one month with muscle injuries. They have added brain and spark and creativity, and now Spurs’ threats are far more varied than they were earlier this season.
Here Pochettino unveiled a new way of playing, partly forced on him, with Eriksen and Alli either side of Harry Winks in central midfield. It was almost a Manchester City approach, no physical holder, three ball-players in the middle instead, and it helped Spurs to dominate possession. Even though they had to go long to win the game, that is as much a tribute to PSV and Jeroen Zoet as anything else. Pochettino was delighted with how his team had used the ball.
“We created chances and dominated the game,” he said. “I am so pleased with everything. How we played in the opposition half, trying to be patient, not taking rash decisions or making mistakes.”
And in a team without Eric Dier or Mousa Dembele, Winks interpreted that deep-lying role in a very different way. “Today to play alone, like a holding midfielder, with Christian and Dele next to him, was a massive challenge,” Pochettino said. “And his performance was excellent.”
Maybe this is a blueprint for where Spurs go next, how they try to unpick teams who just come to Wembley to frustrate them. They will have to be patient and intelligent and precise again when Inter come here. But they have nearly beat them once already this season. Going the next step next time should be well within their reach.