Cross out the Y, Tottenham are just ‘Spurs’.
— The Sporting Press (@sportingpress1) December 11, 2018
With a late, late equaliser against Barcelona (albeit a weakened one), Mauricio Pochettino’s team qualified from a tough group for the Champions League round of 16. During his time at the club, it’s arguably his best achievement.
“I remember after PSV Eindhoven [when they drew 2-2] and nobody believed in us,” he said after the game. “They said it was mission impossible but we are here in the last 16. We did it.”
Fans of rival clubs with more storied histories and bigger bank balances might argue that qualifying for the knock-out stages of the Champions League is not that great a feat. But they would be wrong.
This was the toughest group to get out of, after Liverpool’s Group C. Barcelona need no introduction, but Inter Milan are enjoying a resurgence, as is the Eredivisie, with PSV a lot stronger than recent years and fellow Dutch side Ajax having made it out of their group as well.
The little guys of the big boys
Lucas Moura’s goal sent Spurs through to only their third appearance in the Champions League knock-out rounds. Given that Tottenham have finished third, second, and third in the Premier League in the last three years, some might see this as an underachievement in Europe.
However, this lack of success in Europe may have enabled their domestic joy. Not able to afford the luxury of a large squad that can be rotated easily, the smaller amount of games that going out of the Champions League early can give them an advantage over their rivals.
With that in mind, qualification from the group isn’t just a sporting success, it’s a sign of something larger as well.
Lucas Moura came off the bench to score; Spurs were without their three best central midfielders in Mousa Dembélé, Eric Dier, and Victor Wanyama; neither full-back, Kyle Walker-Peters or Danny Rose, was the first choice.
Two years ago, how would Spurs have fared with this amount of first-team absentees? How do possible appearances from Tom Carroll, Vincent Janssen, and Georges-Kévin Nkoudou sound?
‘Pochettino needs to win a trophy’
This is why pundits — generally ones with no association to Tottenham — say that Pochettino needs to win a trophy to have been a success at Spurs. Because we forget the starting point that he had.
Sure, Spurs were on the brink of breaking into the Champions League group when the Argentine arrived in 2014, but they’d never managed to break in.
The last time that Tottenham finished in the top three for three years in a row was in the early 1960s. Jimmy Greaves was their top-scorer in two of those season.
Really, the ‘need’ for a trophy is more about the way that the memory of history works than the achievements of this team. Looking back over the Pochettino-era, there isn’t really a single event that the club can hang their hat on, unless consecutive league podium finishes is your thing.
This run — from one point in three games and losing to PSV, to eight points and the all-important second place in the group — could be the start of something. It could culminate in the infamous advert, the new White Hart Lane being the only place to see Champions League football in London, coming true.
Pochettino doesn’t need to win a trophy at Spurs. It’s the rest of football who need a moment that they can point to as emblematic of his reign and its success.
This could be that moment.