Mauricio Pochettino closer to collecting trophy, not just plaudits
The former Argentina international and current coach of Tottenham Hotspur is seeking victory in the Champions League final. Although Pochettino has collected many plaudits, this would be his first major trophy as a coach.
No game plan, no master strategy could have prepared Tottenham for what unfolded over the previous couple of hours on the field at Manchester City.
After the frenzy of fluctuating fortunes, when Tottenham and City traded in despair and delight via video reviews on a night of seven goals, Pochettino had led Tottenham into its first European Cup semi-final in 57 years.
Champions League progress had been secured at the expense of football's costliest squad by a Spurs side shorn of investment – and with key players on the treatment table.
Wednesday's 4-3 loss at Etihad Stadium carried Tottenham through on the away goals rule with a 4-4 aggregate score sealed by Son Heung-min's first-leg goal. Thanks also to the video assistant referee who scrubbed off City's fifth goal in stoppage time — when the home fans were already celebrating — because Sergio Agüero was offside before setting up Raheem Sterling.
"Still we don't realise it," Pochettino said Thursday, "because we're like in a dream, in a bubble."
Satisfaction indeed for the former Argentina international who has collected many plaudits but never a major trophy as a coach. Winning European club football's biggest prise wouldn't be a bad place to start for Pochettino after eliminating two-time Champions League-winning coach Pep Guardiola.
But Tottenham has only been crowned English champions twice. And not since 1961, which gained it a place in the following season's European Cup when the competition was the preserve of domestic champions and Tottenham made the last four.
The latest challenge by Spurs for the Premier League faltered at the turn of the year, just after this season's midpoint. It wasn't followed by a strengthening of the squad.
Instead the January transfer window saw Tottenham become the first Premier League side to fall to sign a player through the entire season.
It is why Tottenham travelled to City relying on Son for goals after top-scorer Harry Kane injured his left ankle again in the first leg. It is why, with Harry Winks and Eric Dier already sidelined and Mousa Dembele sold in January, out-of-favour striker Fernando Llorente had to be summoned from the bench when midfielder Moussa Sissoko was forced off in the first half on Wednesday.
"I wait for my opportunity and I knew I had to be ready because my moment could arrive," Llorente said. "I am very happy because it is not easy when you are not playing normally. It is difficult to get the best feet."
It was responsible for inelegantly nudging the ball over the line for the decisive third away goal in the 73rd minute that swung the quarterfinal back in Tottenham's favour after surviving a VAR review. It was only the Spaniard's 13th goal in almost 20 months at Tottenham, with six coming in domestic cup games against lower-league opposition.
With Son suspended for the first leg against Ajax, after being booked for a foul on Kevin De Bruyne, Pochettino could be relying on the 34-year-old Llorente a lot more.
"I'm still sad but I'm very positive guy," said Son, who scored twice in the opening 11 minutes when Tottenham and City each scored twice. "I think the players can do it better probably without me."
The modesty is misplaced given Son's 20 goals in a season punctuated by two tournament trips with South Korea.
Son still has a valuable Champions League role for Tottenham even before the Ajax semi-final. There is still a top-four finish to secure in the Premier League to qualify for the Champions League for a fourth successive season under Pochettino. It's no easy task with Tottenham in third place, only a point ahead of London rivals Arsenal and Chelsea, and five games to play.
Starting — where else? — but with an immediate return to City on Saturday.
"We need to be humble because beating City, no one expected that," Pochettino said. "It can give massive belief but also if you are not clever enough to manage it in a good way, maybe you can make a mistake."