Last year, Tottenham Hotspur announced their intentions to be a player at the continental level with their stellar play against Spanish power Real Madrid in Champions League group play.
This time around, the injury-ravaged north London side will need another such performance just to make sure they don’t dig too deep a hole for themselves to get out of Group B on Tuesday when they face leaders Barcelona at Wembley Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Tottenham endured their first downswing of the season, recovering from three losses on the bounce in all competitions with a pair of league wins around advancing in the Carabao Cup on penalties over Watford. Harry Kane appears ready to kick on for the season after his stellar World Cup for England, recording a first-half brace in Spurs’ 2-0 victory at Huddersfield Town on Saturday.
Kane, though, will be receiving service from a midfield significantly thinned through injury. Playmakers Dele Alli and Christian Eriksen are sidelined, along with defender Jan Vertonghen. Barcelona’s potent trident of ex-Liverpool strikers Philippe Coutinho and Luis Suarez along with Lionel Messi means Erik Lamela’s creativity might be anchored to the bench as Harry Winks and Eric Dier soak up pressure until he becomes vital to potentially rescue a point.
“Tomorrow we do not win or lose because players are out,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino told The Times. “We win or lose and take responsibility. If we don’t win, it is because we do not deserve to and it will be my responsibility. I don’t want easy excuses. Of course I prefer everyone to be available but I am not going to say we don’t have a chance because this or that guy is out.”
Still, it was Winks who was a revelation for Tottenham last season with a spectacular effort in their 1-1 draw at Real Madrid that doubled as the London side’s coming out party to the continent en route to their eventual round of 16 finish. His distribution forward could be the swing vote in this game that determines just how much work the Spurs have left in their final four group matches.
One guy expected to be back in is No. 1 keeper Hugo Lloris, who missed six games due to a thigh injury on the heels of his drink-driving arrest in August, including Tottenham’s 2-1 defeat at Inter Milan to open group play a fortnight ago in which No. 2 Michel Vorm conceded twice after the 85th minute. He was then injured, forcing Pochettino to turn to Paulo Gazzaniga for the last three contests.
Lloris has not played since posting a clean sheet in the Lilywhites’ most complete performance of the season, a 3-0 victory at Manchester United on Aug. 27.
Barcelona are atop Group B after a comprehensive 4-0 thrashing of Dutch side PSV Eindhoven two weeks ago as Messi recorded his 48th career hat trick and raised his Champions League goal haul to 103 in 126 matches. The Argentina international opened the scoring in the 32nd minute before adding his other two in the final 13 minutes following a marker by Ousmane Dembele to start the final quarter-hour.
Messi has not been as proficient outside the Nou Camp in Champions League play, though his 41 goals in 64 away matches cannot be simply binned and ignored. He has also factored on six of Barca’s last eight goals in all competitions over the last four matches, but the defence has not been up to snuff as they have recorded draws at home versus Girona and Athletic Bilbao around a 2-1 defeat at Leganes.
Attacking midfielder Ivan Rakitic, no stranger to an England-laden Spurs side after he tormented a good portion of them in leading Croatia to victory in the World Cup semifinals, said that Barcelona are in good spirits despite the recent run of disappointing results.
“Defending Barça is the greatest thing there is,” he told the club’s official website. “Two games shouldn’t affect us and the important thing is to be all together. We must improve, but we are calm because we are preparing well.”
Manager Ernesto Valverde has been forced into one change for this match, with centre back Samuel Umtiti serving a one-match ban for his two bookings against PSV. That puts Clement Lenglet squarely in Kane’s cross-hairs as he will try to form an airtight tandem with Gerald Pique. That, however, has not happened as Barcelona have yet to record a clean sheet in the two matches they have started together.
One of the interesting sidebars to this contest is Valverde was the manager who ended Pochettino’s playing career while at Espanyol. The Spurs boss said there are no hatchets to bury since they spoke to each other during their tour of the United States in the summer, though Pochettino did admit in his book Valverde’s decision was “hard to accept.”
Per Ladbrokes, Barcelona are firm road favourites with 19/20 odds, while Spurs are 5/2 underdogs. The odds of the teams splitting the points are slightly longer than a home side victory at 13/5.
Oddsmakers are expecting there to be goals at Wembley, with Barca getting 7/4 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored, while Spurs are getting 4/1 odds on the high side of goals scored. The odds of a 0-0 draw or 1-1 draw are 17/4, slightly shorter than a 1-0 or 2-0 Barcelona win (19/4). There is not much confidence in a low-scoring Spurs victory, which shares the longest odds with a 2-2 draw or higher at 8/1.
Messi leads the list for first goal-scorers at 16/5, edging out Kane and Suarez — who are joint-second at 4/1. Munir El Hadaddi, who has played all of 72 minutes this season for Barcelona, is a curious fourth option at 5/1 ahead of Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente (13/2) and Dembele (7/1).
Messi has better than even money to score during the match at 19/20, with Kane not far behind him at 6/5. Suarez lurks behind the pair at 13/10, with Coutinho and Spurs counterpart Heung-Min Son further back at 12/5, just ahead of Lucas Moura (13/5).
While Pochettino is correct in moving on past the lament of who is not available for him in this game, getting Lloris back — as expected — is a huge bonus for Tottenham. A better shot-stopper than Gazzaniga, Lloris will also command the penalty area batter than the third-string keeper, something that was vitally missing late in the Lilywhites’ defeat at the San Siro when Inter came at them in waves.
Missing Vertonghen, though, will be a huge negative and one that may result in Pochettino playing more of a five-man back at times similar to what they did at the Bernabeu last season. The wide backs’ discipline will be especially important on the left, where Ben Davies will be tasked with making sure Rakitic doesn’t make overlapping runs and various other offensive feints in tandem with Messi.
Messi, Suarez and Coutinho have accounted for 70 of Barcelona’s 150 shots on target thus far and 13 of their 22 goals. Suarez, though, has a spotty track record on the road in Champions League play, going 13 matches without a marker since netting at AS Roma in 2015. In his abbreviated run with Liverpool last term before joining Barcelona and having to watch knockout round play, Coutinho totaled five goals and three assists in five group matches before getting an assist versus PSV.
How Tottenham go in the midfield is how this match will likely go. If Dier and Winks can disrupt passes and hold possession, the Spurs can find themselves in a position to potentially steal three points. If they wind up chasing ghosts amid the rapid-fire passing of Rakitic, Arthur, and Sergio Busquets and leaving open patches of pitch for Messi and company, it will be a long night at Wembley.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 2, BARCELONA 3.
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