Not so long ago, the prospect of Moussa Sissoko featuring for Tottenham against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu would have been met with trepidation and no little mirth among Spurs’ supporters.
The £30million man has certainly taken his time to find his feet in north London – about a year in fact.
But after an entirely forgettable first season with the Lilywhites, and an inconsistent start to this campaign, the light seems to be growing brighter at the end of the tunnel: his last three displays have all been encouraging.
Sissoko set up one of Harry Kane’s strikes against Apoel Nicosia in the last Champions League outing and, four days later, he came off the bench to score his first goal for the club at Huddersfield.
The 28-year-old also made his presence felt as a substitute against Bournemouth on Saturday, muscling an opponent out of his path and making a powerful run up the touchline from inside his own half before crossing for Dele Alli, who headed wide.
Although he went on to butcher a later chance – overhitting a pass to Georges-Kevin Nkoudou when Tottenham heavily outnumbered their visitors – the sight of Sissoko charging forward on the break is probably just what Mauricio Pochettino and Spurs’ fans envisaged when he joined the club.
And, for his own part, tonight’s trip to the Bernabeu is exactly the sort of occasion the France international pictured when he swapped Newcastle for Tottenham.
“I said it in the newspaper when I signed,” said Sissoko. “I came to Tottenham because, although I respect Newcastle, for me Tottenham is better than Newcastle and they try to win the title in the league, and you have a chance to play in the Champions League. That’s what I wanted.
“I have an opportunity to play this kind of game, so I need to enjoy it and try to take it game by game and give my best.
“I’m excited, and we’re all excited, because we play against the last champions of the Champions League – it’s a big team and it’s away.
“We will go there without pressure and try to play the game normally and hopefully come back with some points from the Bernabeu.”
Sissoko continued: “I’m happy with what I’m doing at the moment. As I’ve said, last season I came at the end of the transfer window so I didn’t have a pre-season, so it was difficult for me. Sometimes it takes time to feel comfortable in a new team.
“But this season is totally different so I feel better. Everything looks good for me at the moment, so I will try to carry on with that and improve every game.
“Maybe I’m doing well at the moment but it’s not the end [of the process]. I try to make some [assists] and goals because I’m a midfielder and that’s what we need.
“When I came on [against Bournemouth], the manager told me something to do: when we have the ball, try to play inside because here is my best position. I think it was good, I did well and the team also did well.
“I think [that’s my best position] and that’s where I feel most comfortable. After that, the manager decides if I should play inside or on the side – [the decision] is tactical for the team.”
One of the curious and frustrating things about Sissoko’s first year at Tottenham was that his club form was so at odds with his international pedigree.
After all, this was a player who started the Euro 2016 final against Portugal, which is likely to have been a factor in his price tag.
That match ended with heartache for both Sissoko and Hugo Lloris as host nation France lost 1-0 to Portugal after extra time. They had to watch as Cristiano Ronaldo lifted the trophy at the Stade de France, and those painful memories might just resurface when they see the four-time Ballon d’Or winner in the tunnel tonight.
Nonetheless, Sissoko believes the experience of playing in that final will only help when he arrives at the Bernabeu.
“Of course sometimes I think about that game,” he said. “I’m still disappointed because it was a massive final at home and we lost, but now it’s over and I need to look forward. It’s a different game with another team.
“It wasn’t easy [to get over it]. We don’t play a final every day, especially because we played at home, and we wanted to bring the trophy.
“We couldn’t for some reason but we need to carry on and look forward. I still have a couple of years to play and I hope to have a chance to play some finals again and hopefully get some titles.
“Of course, that type of game helps you to play this type of game, like tonight. A final is a massive game and to play against Madrid away I think is maybe similar. We have the chance to play against some of the best players in the world.
“But we will go there without pressure. I know we have a good team and a strong squad. It won’t be easy but we will go there to try to play, give our best on the pitch and hopefully come back with something.
“I’ve spoken with Raphael Varane (the Real Madrid and France centre-back) about this game. To joke, I said to him ‘if you can give me a penalty it would be good!’
“He was laughing, but when you play a big game you focus on your team and forget about your friends. I don’t know if I will play or not, but I will be prepared to give my best for helping the team.”
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