Mauricio Pochettino described it as a “difficult job” for his Tottenham players and the understatement seems palpable. Their push for the Premier League title has run into Arsenal and to keep their hopes alive, they must surely beat their rivals at White Hart Lane on Sunday.
On its own, that adds up to pressure of the most extreme variety but the layers of the challenge go deeper. Pochettino’s players will know that it will be the last derby to be staged at the stadium and the second-last fixture. Manchester United are to visit on 14 May.
The club finally confirmed on Friday afternoon that they are to decommission the old ground and move to Wembley next season, while the work on their new 61,000-seat venue next to the existing site is completed. After 118 years, it has come down to nothing more than a couple of matches.
It promises to be emotional, particularly as the league leaders, Chelsea, will have played earlier in the day at Everton – the most difficult game of their run-in. It is far from inconceivable that the west London club will drop points, which would leave Tottenham – currently four points back – eyeing a golden opportunity.
Pochettino was peppered with questions on Friday about the significance of his team finishing above Arsenal for the first time in 22 years, which would be assured if they were to win the derby.
He sidestepped this additional strand of the drama, maintaining his line that it was not about Arsenal, rather the quest for Tottenham to be better than all the other 19 clubs in the division. Around derby time there tends to be discussion of power shifts. Pochettino gave it short shrift. “I think the power is equal,” he said.
Pochettino is preoccupied with broader issues and one of the biggest relates to mentality. Will his team be able to cope with everything that is thrown their way on Sunday? Will they be overtaken by the emotion? The manager was bullish with his answer.
“You cannot ignore that it is a derby, with all that means, and we are also playing for another big thing, to be alive in the title race,” Pochettino said. “It is a very tough job to be focused and it’s true that emotion will be involved – maybe more than in other games. But the team has learned a lot. They know that football is emotion. It will not be new for the team to feel that emotion on Sunday.
“Every game, you test your personality, your character and mentality but the good thing in our minds is that there is no doubt we can win. The most important thing is that the team is so strong in that aspect. We are so strong now in our minds.”
The White Hart Lane factor cannot be overlooked and even though the club said for sure only on Friday that this would be the final season there, Pochettino said the team had “played every game like the last one”.
They are on a run of 15 successive wins at the stadium, with 12 of them having come in the league. The sense of momentum, together with the connection between the fans and players, has become a powerful tool.
“Our fans are so excited and so are the players,” Pochettino said. “That feeling, that energy, that the fans translate to the team, is fantastic. And it is key. The team plays exciting football and the fans are completely involved with them. They feel very close to the team. It’s a fantastic union that can only benefit the club.”