It is a measure of football’s rise in extreme opinion that nights such as these put Pochettino’s reputation on a knife edge. Had Tottenham lost 2-0 at Wembley on Wednesday evening, their overachievement in the Premier League would be overlooked amid a surge of questions posed by those who had already decided upon their answers. The overriding accusation would be this: When the tough gets going, Tottenham stop going.
But then that knife edge – and the pressure it creates – means that we ought to lavish more praise upon Pochettino when he comes through with flying colours again, and Wednesday only reinforced what a remarkable job this manager has done and is continuing to do.
Without two of his best attacking players, Tottenham brushed past the Bundesliga leaders and harnessed arguably the best attacking team in Europe this season, and certainly the best outside the Premier League. Barring second-leg collapse, Pochettino will lead his team into the last eight of the Champions League for the first time.
Over the last 116 days, Tottenham have played 26 matches in four competitions. That would be a punishing schedule for any of the Premier League’s top six, but Tottenham have a thin squad that has been ravaged by absentees. A list of players to have missed at least one game over that 116-day period: Davinson Sanchez, Jan Vertonghen, Ben Davies, Serge Aurier, Eric Dier, Victor Wanyama, Moussa Sissoko, Harry Winks, Dele Alli, Son Heung-min, Lucas Moura, Harry Kane.
When that run began, Tottenham were hanging by a thread in the Champions League and their ability to finish in the top four was being widely questioned. They have won 20 of those 26 matches. Given the circumstances of their injuries and stadium fiasco, that is outrageous.
But then that is the great strength of Pochettino: fighting with one hand tied behind his back and yet still able to deflect the punches and land body blows of his own. When the chips are down, either at half-time or in the context of an entire season, he gathers whatever components are available and builds them into a team far greater than the sum of its parts. He’s magic, y’know.
You can normally judge a football club’s success on the basis of how much it annoys a certain section of their rivals’ supporters. After every tweet that has dared to praise Pochettino’s overachievement over the last two years, Arsenal fans have angrily accused bias and/or hyperbole.
But when one journalist tweeted his report from Wembley last night, one Arsenal supporter gave the game away. ‘Yeah, but they won’t even get past the quarter-final,’ was the response. After seven consecutive Champions League exits at the last-16 stage, it’s a difficult look to pull off. Tottenham supporters will have walked into offices and schools across London with a spring in their step on Thursday morning.
The only thing Paris Saint-Germain’s gold-plated project has lacked is an elite-level manager. The rapid investment in the playing staff has allowed this superclub to collect an astonishing array of individual talents. They are yet to appoint a coach worthy of knitting it all together. Tuchel is good, but was not considered in the top bracket of world coaches at the time of his appointment.
He has been tasked with changing perceptions, and not just of himself. PSG will never be universally loved or objectively lovable, but there’s not a whole lot of point being the bad guys if you aren’t going to win everything.
PSG join Manchester United as the two biggest Champions League underperformers of recent years, at least according to their financial resources. But while there is a general acceptance at Old Trafford that the journey back to European football’s top table will take time, Tuchel is not afforded such patience. He must succeed where Unai Emery and Laurent Blanc failed, or he will lose his job. The failures before his arrival could have reduced the pressure on Tuchel, but they have had the opposite effect.
On the way to every match I attend (for work, I’m not a complete loon) I try and spend 15 minutes mulling over where I think the game will be won and lost and who I think will dominate, and I’ll concede that I made United slight favourites on Tuesday. PSG’s absence of two of their three first-choice strikers, recent defensive sloppiness and Champions League gremlins blended with a rampant United optimism that felt tangible.
So did we underestimate PSG? Did we judge Tuchel unfairly on the mistakes made by his predecessors? Does beating teams by four and five in Ligue Un persuade us that PSG are ill-equipped for tough, competitive battles? Perhaps. Tuchel’s team certainly had more quality, more resilience and more tactical togetherness than their opponents. They also wholly took the p*ss out of United in the final ten minutes to a cacophony of “Olés” from the away end.
It all reflects very well on Tuchel, assuming PSG avoid another second-leg catastrophe. His side produced the standout performance of this Champions League week, and in doing so shifted majority opinion on his team. Weak-willed and vulnerable? Not on this evidence.
Eleven goals in his last 12 Tottenham matches, just when his manager and club needed him most. He never moans, he plays anywhere you need him to, he’s somehow still only 26 and he is too regularly involved in the crucial moments of crucial matches for it to be a coincidence. There may be more talented players in the Premier League than Son, but there can surely be no player who is a greater pleasure to manage.
Before 2018/19, Winks had only started 12 top-flight league games in his career. Now he’s playing as the central midfield pivot for a team that is marching on to the Champions League quarter-finals, and flourishing with such responsibility. It’s damn impressive.
Do not be tricked into thinking that Kylian Mbappe had a monopoly on Tuesday Champions League excellence by a Bright Young Thing. Zaniolo had only started two European matches before this week, both comprehensive defeats. Yet the 19-year-old stole the show in the Stadio Olimpico with two goals in six minutes to give Roma a slight advantage over Porto heading in the second leg.
At his age, I was customising my own jeans (badly), trying to be cool (badly) and getting drunk (well) to try and talk to girls (badly). And here’s this kid leading his club in the Champions League. It just won’t do.
Roma’s Premier League rejects
Aleksandar Kolarov, sold by Manchester City because he couldn’t really defend and had absolutely zero interest in learning.
Federico Fazio, who flopped at Tottenham before being sold for less than £3m.
Davide Santon, who never settled at Newcastle United and has presumably invented a time machine to still only be 28 years old.
Steven Nzonzi, who had a broadly positive effect on Stoke City but never truly dominated in the Premier League as he had wished.
Those four former Premier League players all appeared in a knockout Champions League game on Tuesday night. The lucky buggers.
A coach who has only ever felt like a substitute teacher and who looked as though he may be sacked when Real Madrid lost 3-0 at Eibar in November and again when they lost 2-0 at home to Real Sociedad in early January. Since that second defeat, Real have played six La Liga and Champions League matches and won all six, scoring 16 goals. They’re back in second and only six points behind Barcelona back home, but in Europe something special might be building again. They couldn’t, could they?
A striker who permanently lived in Cristiano Ronaldo’s shadow and suffered through unfair and unflattering comparisons is flying at the age of 31. Benzema has seven goals in his last six games, and on Wednesday became only the fourth player in history to reach 60 European Cup goals.
Our early winner. We feared that Mbappe might suffer in the absence of his stellar teammates. Sometimes a lightning quick wide forward flourishes as the ‘other’ weapon, sitting on the wing and waiting for defenders to forget about him like a child staying quiet as a grown-up’s party enters mid-evening.
But he is just too good. Watch Mbappe’s movement for PSG’s second goal, dropping deep to create space before sprinting between central defenders to time his run perfectly. The finish, placed past a despairing David de Gea, was achieved with the slightest opening of his foot as it hit the floor. Proof that Mbappe is not a wide forward as we know it, all sinew and sprinting starts. There are aesthetics to complement the athletics.
Angel di Maria
A night that began with Di Maria being booed every time he touched the ball, continued with his flimsy touches being screamed at by Tuchel and hit a nadir when he was shoved into a metal barrier at Old Trafford ended with the Argentinean screaming “f**k off” at the Old Trafford crowd as his team celebrated their second goal. Now that’s a 90-minute story arc for you.
The third PSG player singled out for praise, and probably the most influential at Old Trafford. Ander Herrera has earned plenty of praise for his performances in Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s midfield, but here was a deeply unflattering comparison. Herrera adjusted to the tempo and timbre of Tuesday’s match. Verratti dictated both.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
It was always going to come at some point; nobody gets through life without being hurt. Solskjaer spent Monday musing why there was no reason why Manchester United could not win the Champions League. He then spent Tuesday late evening admitting that he had just seen why. Manchester United are not as good as Paris Saint-Germain. As ten-word match reports go, it’s a doozy.
This was a horrible baptism of fire on the biggest stage for Solskjaer. Losing two of your best attackers before the game (as PSG did) is one thing, but it at least allows a manager to create a tactical plan on the training ground and ensure that the team is prepared to enact it. Losing two at half-time is so difficult to cope with. It demands a new plan to be concocted and detailed to the players in the space of ten minutes.
Solskjaer probably did make a mistake. Romelu Lukaku on the right would surely have been a better option than Alexis Sanchez, and even bringing on Fred over Mata and pushing Pogba forward, or Dalot at right-back and pushing Ashley Young forward, might well have worked better. It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Juan Mata and Sanchez made United stodgy in the final third and therefore easy to defend against. That gave PSG the licence to attack and seal victory.
But Solskjaer will learn from this. His future does not deserve to be decided by a Champions League exit to PSG, a club with more in every department than United. But this was at least proof that, with or without Solskjaer, it is a long climb back to the top of the mountain for the club. Solskjaer’s thoughts must now turn to making sure United can at least get to base camp next season. The top four is everything. It is that that will – or should – decide his future.
I won’t go into too much detail, because a) it’s damn sad and b) Sarah Winterburn already did. But Sanchez is now fully broken, permanently harmed by the effects of playing a high-intensity sport in a high-intensity style for a decade almost without a break. Arsenal haven’t got many things right when selling their key players, but they got Sanchez bob on.
Borussia Dortmund’s second-half collapses
If we credit Pochettino for Tottenham’s second-half assault after a difficult first period, Dortmund deserve plenty of flak for their meek acceptance of defeat and shambolic defending. The Daily Telegraph’s Ali Tweedale wrote before the game that six of the last seven goals they had conceded had been from crosses, while Tottenham had scored more headed goals than any other team in Europe’s top five leagues. Spurs only scored one header, but all three goals Dortmund conceded came from crosses. Lucien Favre has a huge issue to solve.
Dortmund are also showing signs of creaking under the weight of expectation, having been the standout team in Europe over the first half of the season. So far in February, Favre’s team have ceded a lead to Eintracht Frankfurt to drop league points, tumbled out of the DFB Pokal despite leading twice in extra-time, lost a three-goal lead in the final 15 minutes against Hoffenheim and lost 3-0 to Tottenham at Wembley. In 165 post-half-time minutes in their last three matches, Dortmund have conceded eight goals. Bayern Munich will smell blood.
No longer a good enough right-back for a team with Manchester United’s ambitions. That is not intended to be heartless criticism, for Young has performed an admirable role as short-term stand in who became long-term option.
But this must now stop, before it gets embarrassing. The shove on Di Maria was pure stupidity that should have earned him a second yellow card, the action of a man frustrated by his own limits. Having spent £19m on Diogo Dalot – described by Jose Mourinho as the best young right-back in Europe – United must now start him as default.
The reverse Di Maria. Every touch from Pogba in the first half drew a murmur of excitement at Old Trafford, justified when he glided past Presnel Kimpembe and then beat the same player with quick feet on the edge of the penalty area. But as United grew frustrated, Pogba tried harder and harder to seize the tie in his hands and was left looking desperate. The lunge on Dani Alves should have earned him a straight red card.
Losers because they lost (I’m getting the hang of this after four years), but Ajax had 19 shots and almost double Real Madrid’s number of efforts on target. They are unfortunate that they faced the European champions and the European champions of getting it done.
Still, take a moment to appreciate Ajax’s bright new future. Even if it does end in a raft of expensive exports, that is how a club like Ajax must flourish. Develop, sculpt, sell and reinvest. Their matchday squad on Tuesday contained seven players aged 21, one aged 22 and another aged 19. De toekomst is helder.