Mauricio Pochettino was proud of his players in the aftermath of their defeat to Barcelona. Although clearly cross at the way Hugo Lloris had handed the Catalans such an early lead, he was pleased with the spirit shown and, given the team’s shortages, how competitive they’d managed to be. Not without reason, either: Harry Winks had added another notable performance to his CV, Erik Lamela continued his good form, and Harry Kane’s confidence was clearly shown to be in recovery.
There will have been no getting away from the bigger picture, though: should Inter Milan draw at Wembley when they come to London, Tottenham will be out of the Champions League and, barring highly unlikely results elsewhere, Pochettino and his players would then have taken a giant step back in Europe.
The regret is that it isn’t really his fault. Injuries to Christian Eriksen, Moussa Dembele and Dele Alli have robbed the Argentine of three essential midfielders and the loss of Jan Vertonghen, to a seemingly serious hamstring injury, has denied him of his best centre-half at a critical time. Not only does Vertonghen’s absence weaken Tottenham without the ball, it has compromised their ability to be efficient with it, too; his ability to carry and distribute possession into midfield is fundamental.
Cumulatively, those are players Pochettino just can’t be without. Tottenham may realistically have little chance of winning the Champions League, they remain in the happy-to-take-part-and-thanks-for-cash phase, but this was nonetheless a good chance to rattle the cage of an elite opponent, perhaps qualify for the knockout stages, and boost club morale ahead of the move to the new stadium.
All of which, unfortunately, has been squandered. Injuries may always be part of football, but exposing a small squad to a burdensome workload – and a World Cup – was always likely to create this scenario. It’s not a coincidence that all of those players are currently suffering muscle complaints and that each one of them spent the summer in Russia.
In other words, this was a scenario which could have been seen coming and which, were Tottenham really serious about continuing their rate of advancement, they could have alleviated. As a result, 2018-19 already feels like a wasted opportunity – and, even after just two European fixtures, the most sensible course of action would probably be to de-prioritise the Champions League and focus all resources on the league.
How dispiriting that would be. All of last season’s effort vented away because, instead of strengthening in a way which would allow a sustained challenge across multiple fronts, the club chose to roll the dice once more on a squad which was already over-stretched. The fact remains, though, that the priority for next season is to take Champions League participation into the new stadium and, tedious though it may be to fixate on such things, maintain an important revenue stream.
Tottenham’s inability to challenge across multiple fronts was reinforced by the performance on Saturday at Wembley. Pochettino may have been without some critical pieces for the 1-0 win over Cardiff, but it was alarming just how jaded his players already look. Various returns over the next fortnight should add some freshness, but this already looks like a squad stretched to its physical limits. The January window will likely come and go without any reinforcement and on current evidence, European competition looks like a gratuitous endeavour which everybody can do without.
It sounds unpalatable, but the dye is already cast. Even at full-strength, the chances of qualification now appear remote and so, logically, why commit any eggs at all to that basket?