Tottenham Hotspur FC will have the opportunity to join an elite group of European football clubs when it faces Liverpool this evening in its first-ever Champions League final.
Spurs were far from the bookmaker’s favourite when they travelled to Milan last September to begin their European journey, and their odds grew even longer after their 2-1 defeat to Inter Milan.
Things turned from bad to worse as Spurs slumped to a heavy 4-2 home defeat to one of the competition favourites Barcelona, and heads continued to drop after they were held to a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven.
The situation was dire, the group stage looked all but decided — Barcelona and Inter would surely advance — while Tottenham was staring down the barrel of a disappointing European campaign.
Few could have predicted then, that it would be the North London club walking out onto the grass of the Wanda Metropolitano Stadium in June for a shot at European glory, while Barcelona would be watching the game from the comfort of their living rooms.
Tottenham has spent most of its Premier League existence in the shadow of London rivals Arsenal, who dominated the league in the early 21st century and in 2004 became the first team to ever finish a season without losing a game.
Meanwhile, Tottenham finished that season in 14th place, mustering just half the points of their bitter rivals.
The club was rescued from mid-table obscurity from an unlikely source — a teenage left back from Wales.
Gareth Bale came to Tottenham as an unknown entity and was almost written off as a flop when he failed to win a single game in his first 24 appearances.
But a shift to the left wing transformed him into one of the world’s best attackers who helped Tottenham gain a foothold in Europe.
His 2011 hat-trick at the San Siro against reigning Champions Inter Milan will be remembered as one of the greatest individual performances in Champions League history.
But as with all good things, they rarely last.
Bale was sold to Real Madrid in 2013 for a then-record fee of more than 85 million pounds.
The Bale money
The sale of Bale landed the club a windfall of cash.
Tottenham’s notoriously frugal chairman Daniel Levy uncharacteristically relinquished the war chest to newly recruited Portuguese manager Andre Villas-Boas, nicknamed AVB.
AVB was coming off the back of a disappointing season at Chelsea, where he was fired for failing to make the top four.
So it seemed something of a long shot when he was brought in to fulfil Tottenham’s European ambitions.
The former Porto boss was given free rein to spend the Bale money how he saw fit and build a squad capable of competing with the continent’s best.
He brought in seven of Europe’s most promising young players — but if Fulham’s ill-fated spending spree this season tells us anything, it’s that money can’t buy happiness or guarantee success.
Almost predictably the new-look Spurs side failed to click. AVB’s philosophy of dogmatic tactical discipline created rigidity in the side that was difficult for the fans to stomach.
AVB was fired after heavy defeats to Liverpool and Manchester City.
He was replaced by his technical co-ordinator Tim Sherwood who, despite boasting the club’s highest ever Premier League win percentage at the time, was also shown the door after just six months.
The Pochettino era
While Tottenham was struggling to find positives in a season that promised so much but delivered very little, down on the south coast an unknown Argentine manager was turning heads with newly promoted Southampton.
Mauricio Pochettino impressed many in his first Premier League season by guiding the minnows to their highest Premier League finish.
But it was Pochettino’s reputation for nurturing young talents like Luke Shaw and Adam Lallana that caught the eye of Daniel Levy.
Pochettino was judged the most suitable option to get the best out of Tottenham’s misfiring new signings and was appointed the club’s manager for the start of the 2014 season.
It was a move that would pay almost immediate dividends as the Argentine narrowed in on a 20-year-old academy striker by the name of Harry Kane.
Under Pochettino’s guidance, Kane finished the season as the club’s top scorer with 21 goals.
Tottenham missed out on Champions League football that year. But as with all good things, they come to those who wait.
Under Pochettino’s mentorship, Kane transformed into one of the game’s best strikers.
He finished the next two seasons as the league’s top scorer and evolved from a shy, reserved player into a leader and a captain for both his club, and eventually, his country.
Kane is far from an isolated case — Pochettino has a habit of turning talent into performance, which in his line of work is a highly sought after commodity.
The Argentine also identified League One talent Dele Alli and curbed his attitude issues to turn him into one of the league’s most lethal midfielders.
The remaining legacy of the Bale signings, Christian Eriksen and Erik Lamela also flourished under his watch, while the emergence of young midfielder Harry Winks and the revival of Moussa Sissoko are a testament to his skills as one of the best man managers working today.
He became so adept at developing players that the phrase “Poch Project” was coined to describe the phenomena of underperforming but talented players who, with just the right coaching, can rediscover the brilliance that was always there, lying just below the surface.
A dream of European success
Pochettino led Spurs to a Champions League finish in four straight seasons — a remarkable feat given the club’s financial restrictions during that time.
The club was hamstrung by the construction of its 1 billion pound “Tottenham Hotspur Stadium” which opened for business earlier this year.
As a result of the astronomical construction costs, Spurs became the first club in Premier League history to fail to sign a single player in a transfer window.
The club has a transfer net spend of just 50 million pounds since Pochettino’s arrival — a figure that pales in comparison to the astronomical spending of their English rivals.
The Argentine has dropped hints this season that the club needs to match its ambitions with financial backing to keep him at the club, amid reported interest from Real Madrid and Manchester United.
Despite the lack of fresh blood, Tottenham has enjoyed its best ever Champions League campaign.
In the absence of injured captain Kane, Spurs have found new talismans in the form of South Korean forward Son Heung-min and Lucas Moura.
Moura’s stunning second-half hat-trick against Ajax in the semi-final single-handedly catapulted Spurs into the final, instantly establishing him as a club legend.
If Pochettino is to claim his maiden European title, he must outmanoeuvre a fellow pioneer of modern managerial tactics, Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp.
Klopp’s brand of “Heavy Metal” football has transformed Liverpool into a force of nature, both domestically and on the continent.
Liverpool fell one point short of breaking their 30-year domestic title drought this season, despite winning 97 points.
European success for Liverpool will be considered recognition of the club’s return to the top of European football, as well as redemption for the heartbreak of last year’s defeat to Real Madrid.
In his autobiography, Pochettino says he believes in the concept of “universal energy”.
That people, places and events are charged with a certain kind of rarefied power that’s the cause of all things.
He says it’s the reason why Harry Kane always scores in derbies.
According to the Argentine, it’s this intangible quantity that will decide the final tonight.
But it’s impossible to ignore his role in getting them there.
Source: Timothy Fernandez