There are only two trophies that Mauricio Pochettino really wants to win, and his Tottenham team are already five places and 18 points behind Manchester City in the Premier League. So as we head into winter, and Spurs’ targets reduce to one, the question must be asked: can Tottenham win the Champions League?
At first glance it might look unlikely. This is only Spurs’ second foray ever into the Champions League knock-out rounds, the first coming with a completely different team back in 2011. This is a competition that rewards experience, quality, depth and above all wealth; just look at a list of recent winners. How can Spurs’ squad of just-about-fit 16 senior players hope to cope?
But then no-one expected Spurs to qualify from their Champions League group this season, when they were drawn with Real Madrid, winners of three of the last four competitions, and Borussia Dortmund, who beat them home and away in the Europa League 2016. Given how much Spurs looked out of their depth last season, this year felt like a hiding to nothing before their customary place in the Europa League last-32.
So what happened? Tottenham got more group stage points than anyone else in the competition. Manchester United, Manchester City, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern Munich all got 15 points. But Spurs ended up with 16, having completed a home-and-away double over Borussia Dortmund while drawing with Real Madrid in Spain before that famous 3-1 win at Wembley.
If Tottenham can do that to the team that won this trophy in 2014, 2016 and 2017, then why should they worry about anyone else? That was the confident note sounded by Danny Rose in the aftermath of Wednesday’s 3-0 win over APOEL.
“It’s not easy to go to the Bernabeu and get a point, and maybe we should have won the game,” Rose said. “It’s not easy to beat Real Madrid convincingly here. I hope teams look at those performances and realise Tottenham are a team to be feared. When we turn up, we can beat anybody on our night.”
Harry Winks was just as bullish, predicting that Spurs could beat anyone they were drawn against. “Whoever we get we are going to go into the game hoping to win,” Winks said. “And confident in ourselves that we can get the win, whoever we play. We’ve shown against the champions Real Madrid how good we can be. So whoever we get, we’ll embrace it.”
Spurs are seeded for the last-16 but the non-seeds they can be paired with in Monday’s draw are all serious teams: Bayern Munich, Basel, Sevilla, Porto, Shakhtar Donetsk and Juventus. Rose joked that he wanted to avoid Bayern but Spurs must fancy their chances over two legs against any of the rest of those five. Certainly none of them would like to come to Wembley to face a team that has talent, focus, energy and, best of all, an established way of playing.
“We don’t fear anybody,” Rose said, looking proudly back at their big-game record here. “The manager would prefer us to have one of the top teams. He relishes those sort of games. We have proved this season that we do turn up in these games in the group stage. And we will be looking forward to the draw.”
The division of seeds raises the prospect of four or even five English teams making up the quarter-finals and the possibility of English sides having to beat each other to win the competition. The favourites are Manchester City, but is there anyone in Europe they would rather not play than Spurs? Pochettino has shown over the years that he knows how to beat City. His side got four points off them last year, running them off the pitch at White Hart Lane in October. The season before, Pochettino’s Spurs did the double over City in their pursuit of the title.
Yes, this City side are far better now but they would be extremely reluctant to face a Tottenham team with a coherent way of playing and one world-class number nine – especially when it comes to March and April and City’s number one focus is holding onto their lead at the top of the Premier League.
That trophy is long out of sight for Spurs now but the Champions League is not a pure merit test. If it was then Guardiola would have won it in one of his three years at Bayern Munich. Knock-outs reward adventure and a bit of luck. Now that Spurs have cracked Europe, and only have their eyes on this one prize, they could keep on surprising people.