For Tottenham Hotspur, Wednesday night’s game against Inter is a must-win. They cannot afford a slip-up or a lapse in concentration if they are to remain in contention for a place in the last 16 of the Champions League.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side sit three points behind the Nerazzurri in third in Group B. It is not an ideal situation. They must win on Tuesday and then match or better Inter’s result in the final round of group fixtures.
If Spurs are to get the better of a resolute Inter side, however, they must learn from the mistakes of their previous meeting. They had appeared in control of that game, set for an ideal start to their Champions League campaign. But two late goals – courtesy of Mauro Icardi and Matías Vecino – gave Inter victory.
Inter deserved credit for a spirited comeback, but from a Tottenham perspective it was avoidable. Icardi’s expertly struck volley was followed by a half-heartedly defended corner in injury time: Stefan de Vrij headed on for Vecino to nod the ball into the far corner and secure the win.
Set pieces are an area of concern for Spurs ahead of the return fixture. They have been vulnerable, particularly from corners, throughout the season. It was evident against Inter, and against PSV Eindhoven in their last Champions League outing.
In September, Pochettino’s side conceded five of seven goals from set pieces. It was an issue that needed to be addressed, and their record has since improved. But Inter will know it is a potential weak spot. They have scored five goals from set pieces in Serie A; only Roma have more.
Maximum concentration, then, will be imperative for Spurs. Inter are not only a threat from corners and free kicks, but when crossing the ball from open play, too. In the Champions League this season, they have made an average of 6.25 accurate crosses per 90 minutes. And they put the ball into the box from wide areas, on average, 22 times per game. Tottenham’s defenders can expect an evening of headed clearances.
For the most part, in their previous meeting, Spurs defended relatively well. They frustrated Inter for most of the game, but Luciano Spalletti’s side are capable of capitalising on any mistakes. Icardi, in particular, is unerringly ruthless.
Tottenham will again need to be wary of the Argentine striker, but there are others in Inter’s team who will likely cause problems. Keita Baldé, after a slow start since joining the club in the summer, has begun to find some form. He scored his first Inter goals with a brace in Saturday’s 3-0 win over Frosinone and impressed throughout.
His pace and directness in the final third – Keita has averaged 2.65 successful take-ons per 90 minutes – could be an issue for Spurs. Lautaro Martínez is a player in form, too. The Argentine forward scored his second goal for Inter against Frosinone and offers an alternative option in attack for Spalletti when Icardi is not firing.
Tottenham’s defenders, then, will have plenty to occupy them. Inter are functional and effective at both ends of the pitch and have already proved themselves a difficult side to beat. But they are not invulnerable. If Tottenham can learn from their mistakes at San Siro, they should be capable of keeping their hopes of progression alive.
While they largely matched Inter for most of the reverse fixture, there were areas of the game in which Spurs could have been better. There was a lack of control to their play and the first half was beset by poor, wayward passing.
This was partly due to Inter’s ability to constrict opposition. Spalletti’s side pressed high against Tottenham and made it as difficult as possible for the visitors to play out of defence. They won the ball back five times in the attacking third and 35 times in the middle third, evidence of the success of their pressing and the looseness of Spurs’ passing. Marcelo Brozović was particularly busy in midfield, winning the ball back nine times, more than any other player.
On Wednesday evening, Tottenham will need to play with more composure. They will need to nullify Inter’s attacking threats and perform with the level of cohesion we saw last weekend, in their impressive 3-1 defeat of Chelsea.
Their recent form is promising, and when it matters, Pochettino and his players usually step up. Inter, though, only need to come away with a point. They will make it difficult; they will almost certainly try to make it a scrap.
But Tottenham must put on the kind of display that has made them a regular in the competition under Pochettino. Their place in the knockout stages of the Champions League depends on it.