Tot­ten­ham travel to Bel­grade in need of a morale boost

The National - News - - SPORT | FOOTBALL - STEVE LUCKINGS

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.

Reuters

Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur’s He­ung-min Son is shaken af­ter his tackle on An­dre Gomes left the lat­ter with a dis­lo­cated an­kle

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