Tottenham travel to Belgrade in need of a morale boost
Tottenham Hotspur’s trip to Belgrade to face Red Star could prove to be a turning point in their troubled season. Victory in Serbia would keep their Champions League campaign on track while a defeat is likely to intensify rumours that Mauricio Pochettino’s time at the club has run its course.
Spurs sit 11th in the Premier League table following Sunday’s draw at Everton, 10 points off the top four. It is the first time the north London club have been in the bottom half in November since Pochettino took charge in 2014.
It is a far cry from the summer when Pochettino’s stock was sky high after guiding the club to a fourth-place finish and a first Champions League final. While Spurs came up short in Madrid against Liverpool, their roller-coaster run to the final was one of last season’s success stories.
At the same stage of last season’s group phase Spurs had a solitary point from three matches. They went to Barcelona for their final group match needing to at least match Inter Milan’s result against PSV Eindhoven to progress to the knockouts.
And while an already qualified Barca played a far from full-strength team, Spurs eked out a 1-1 draw and became the first team in 12 years to have more possession than Barca’s fabled ball-hoggers at Camp Nou in a European tie.
After dispatching Borussia Dortmund in the last 16, Spurs progressed to the semi-finals after Raheem Sterling had a last-gasp winner ruled out, at a time when VAR used to be the north London club’s best friend. Ajax, Europe’s darlings of 2018/19, had their fairy tale run cruelly ended when Lucas Moura’s last-minute winner secured a 3-2 win in the second leg.
The Brazilian’s hat-trick that night in Amsterdam came at a time when the team’s totem, Harry Kane, was on the sidelines injured.
It should have been the launchpad for Moura’s progression from short-term solution to permanent fixture under Pochettino, but the Spurs manager has used the former Paris Saint-Germain forward only sparingly this term despite several firstteam players suffering alarming dips in form. Erik Lamela has been preferred ahead of Moura but the Argentine lacks the same goal threat and often flatters to deceive.
Son Heung-min’s mental state will be a consideration too. A tackle by the South Korean forward on Everton’s Andre Gomes during Sunday’s 1-1 draw at Goodison Park ended in the midfielder dislocating his ankle. Though the ensuing red card was revoked in a late night development, Son was visibly shaken.
Those factors should make the case for Moura’s inclusion
from the start all the more pressing. The midfielder, 27, hardly uprooted any trees against Everton but he is by no means Spurs’ only underachiever this season.
It was his header that earned Spurs a point against Manchester City at the Etihad when they should have been on the receiving end of a rugby score. His long-range effort against Olympiakos on Matchday 1 of the Champions League proved crucial as Spurs were forced to hang on for a point in Attica.
In one sense, Pochettino could point to Spurs being ahead of where they were last season, in Europe at least.
Four points from three games is three more than they managed at the same stage 12 months ago, but even those numbers are skewed. A draw against Olympiakos and a win at home to a poor Red Star last time out came either side of a 7-2 humiliation to group leaders Bayern Munich, Spurs’ heaviest home defeat.
With Bayern, on the lookout for a new full-time coach following Niko Kovac’s removal at the weekend, expected to beat Olympiakos in Group B’s other match, victory at Red Star would go some way to alleviating the abyss of depression hanging over Spurs and give them a four-point cushion over their opponents with two games left.
That could be easier said than done. The Serbs have lost away to both Bayern and Spurs by an aggregate of 8-0 but can draw on memories of a recent victory over Liverpool and a draw with Napoli at home last season, as well as a 3-1 win against Olympiakos at the start of October as proof they are a match for most teams at the Red Star Stadium.
Tottenham Hotspur’s Heung-min Son is shaken after his tackle on Andre Gomes left the latter with a dislocated ankle