When Tottenham’s title dream died at Stamford Bridge last May, it seemed unlikely Mauricio Pochettino’s team would challenge again for the crown this term, given the money being invested by their foes and the arrivals of Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho.
But, almost one year on, Spurs are now targeting the double as they bid to overcome Chelsea on two fronts, first in Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final and then in the race for the Premier League crown.
Since the start of the 2015/16 season, the Lilywhites have picked up more points than any other top-flight team. They have also just achieved a club record of seven consecutive Premier League victories.
Pochettino has masterminded a stunning uprising in north London . Yet he sought to lower expectations ahead of this weekend’s semi-final, highlighting the experience in Chelsea ’s ranks and their superior financial resources.
“We are talking of the team that maybe in the last five years has won European competition, World Cups, a manager that won the league with Juventus in Italy ,” he said.
“To play under our philosophy, to learn, grow up, we’re in a different process, a different moment to Chelsea . It’s impossible to compare the clubs, the teams, when fighting for the FA Cup and Premier League title too.”
There are, of course, advantages to publicly pinning the favourites tag on Chelsea – it puts pressure on them and also offers an early excuse for failure if Spurs are beaten.
There may well have been mind games at play, yet the concern for Tottenham and their supporters is that Pochettino may grow frustrated with his club’s position in the status quo.
His importance cannot be overstated, yet he is still awaiting his first trophy as a manager. If Spurs fall just short again this season, how long will he wait? Will a thirst for silverware eventually draw his eye elsewhere, to a team with greater resources?
With these fears in mind, it will be comforting to hear that Pochettino actually relishes the role of the underdog and that, more than titles, he is driven by a desire to upset the established hierarchy and prove that money isn’t everything in football.
In that sense, he and Tottenham are made for each other.
“For me, all that has happened here is a massive success,” said the Argentinian. “For me, winning titles? Yes, but [it matters] with which team.
“It is normal to win titles with Barcelona , Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, maybe Juventus or Porto in Portugal . With a big team, you are already very close to winning.
“Success, for me, is to achieve the top four like last season. It was a big success for Tottenham and maybe means more than winning one title with Barcelona.
“I dream of lifting trophies, but the way I did with Espanyol [as a player]. Two Copa del Reys – with Espanol! That is why I always admire Diego Simeone at Atletico Madrid. It is so difficult to win with Atletico Madrid . He deserves full credit, more maybe than others.
“Of course, as a manager and as a player, you love to lift trophies. We will arrive, we are ambitious. But for me success is not only lifting a trophy. How is very important, how you arrive to lift trophies.
“I have not changed my desire to lift trophies [in the way I did it with] the Copa Del Rey or at Newell’s Old Boys.
“If you play for Boca Juniors or River Plate, it’s normal to win – not playing for Newell’s Old Boys. And I like that challenge with the team that are not spending the money, and you challenge with them. That is what I like the most, more than lifting trophies.”
That will be music to the supporters’ ears, and there may yet come a time when Pochettino has money to spend at Tottenham too. The new 61,000-seater stadium will eventually deliver increased match revenue and help to keep Spurs among the elite.
The aim has been for the project to be completed in the summer of 2018, but the club will only decide next week whether to go ahead with their plans to demolish White Hart Lane at the end of the current campaign and spend a season at Wembley.
Meanwhile, on the playing side, Pochettino’s outfit are ahead of schedule in their development, and are almost waiting for the infrastructure to catch up and help them deliver their ambitions.
“The process was for the team to grow up at the same pace as the club and the facilities,” said the Argentinian. “The idea was always to arrive at the new stadium with a team that can fight and be consistent in the top four. That was the challenge.
“Now to leave White Hart Lane and play at Wembley, it is always a difficult moment for every club, not only for Tottenham.
“But we were fighting last season for the Premier League. This season again we are involved in fighting. If we can achieve in the end maybe the Premier League or the FA Cup, or be the top four again, I think it’s a massive achievement for the team.
“The step has been massive from the team, but the club is still growing up, but not at the same pace. Now maybe we need to wait a little bit for the club to arrive, finish the new stadium, after moving from Wembley to White Hart Lane again.
READ MORE: Conte tells Spurs to ditch the underdogs tag
“That will be the moment to push, and try to win [things]. But if this season we can win, or next season we can win some titles, it’s welcome.”
Tottenham’s last trophy came nine years ago in 2008, when they beat Chelsea in the League Cup final.
On Saturday they will face the same club at the same venue, but their last two meetings with the Blues at Wembley have been rather less successful.
They lost the 2012 FA Cup semi-final 5-1 and were then defeated 2-0 in the 2015 Capital One Cup final, in Pochettino’s first season in at the Lane.
“I wasn’t affected by that,” he said. “When we arrived to that final, I think it was a little bit coincidence, a little bit lucky. It was completely different.
“I don’t know if at that moment we deserved to win the Capital One Cup. Now all this is happening is because we have worked so hard to achieve it, and that feels better.”
Pochettino is facing a tactical dilemma this weekend. Spurs have won their most recent games with a 4-2-3-1 formation, but they lost 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in November using that system.
A few weeks later, in January, they switched to a 3-4-2-1 set-up which effectively mirrored their opponents’ approach, and beat the league leaders 2-0 at the Lane.
Yet the manager feels his side performed better in their defeat against the Blues – and he feels the importance of the issue can be exaggerated anyway.
“We played with two different formations [this season] – one game against Chelsea when we lost, when we played better than them, and the other one I think was equal, and it was 2-0 to us,” said Pochettino.
“Football is always changing momentum, it’s different. They will be different to January and we are now different than when we played in January at White Hart Lane .
“It’s all about results. If you win, you are a genius. If you don’t win, you are the devil. Football is about the belief, the team. It is not important, the formation, the system, the plan.
“If you have 11 on the pitch, seven on the bench, all the staff that believe in one idea, you can play in one formation or use three or four formations. If you believe, you win. But if you don’t believe, it’s so difficult. You can change everything but [you lose].”
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