It may be too soon to panic, but there is definitely concern surrounding Tottenham Hotspur as they being their Champions League campaign Tuesday in a Group B match at the San Siro versus Inter Milan.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Last season, the Spurs took their next logical step in terms of joining the European elite, reaching the knockout round of the Champions League before falling in the round of 16 against Juventus in which their tactical naivete was exposed in the second leg at home.
That 2-1 loss to the scudetto holders was their only defeat in eight Champions League matches, but it also showed the fickle fate of a team who claimed four points off eventual champions Real Madrid in group play.
“Experience is experience, yes, but you need to apply the experience, plus the hunger, plus your own motivation, plus being clever and learning. If you are not clever, it is only experience and it’s not going to help you in the future,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino told The Times.
Pochettino’s team blazed out of the gates in the Premier League with the maximum nine points through three matches, but they dropped back-to-back games around the international break after a 2-1 loss to Liverpool at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Erik Lamela helped the Lilywhites avert a shutout when he converted a corner by Kieran Tripper in the 93rd minute, but the question of overall team fatigue reared itself once more as the Spurs — who did not make a move in the summer window — looked lethargic in contrast to a Liverpool squad who spent aggressively in the summer in their bid to both contend for the Premier League title and return to the Champions League final.
That question about squad fatigue returned to the spotlight when Pochettino announced he would be without at least four regulars for this game. He opted not to bring defenders Trippier and Toby Alderweireld with the squad to Italy, while attacking midfielder Dele Alli and keeper Hugo Lloris remain sidelined through injury.
“You cannot bring 25 players and can only play 11,” Pochettino told the BBC as part of his remarks Monday. “That is the reason. It was a technical decision. You can find it in the dictionary, maybe tactical also on the pitch – yes, it’s tactical too.”
Under the harshest glare regarding potential fatigue is striker Harry Kane. The World Cup Golden Boot winner had two goals and an assist in Tottenham’s fast start but has been silent since, and he was held out of England’s friendly against Switzerland after the Three Lions began Nations League play with a loss to Spain. This game will serve as another referendum on chairman Daniel Levy’s decision to stand pat, but with arguably much more at stake than playing in a new international continental tournament.
Inter Milan are in the Champions League for the first time in seven years following their fourth-place finish in Serie A last season, edging out Lazio for the final spot on the strength of a 3-2 victory in Rome to give them more head-to-head points from the two matches.
This season’s squad, however, has gotten off to a slow start with one win through their first four matches. Inter are coming off a 1-0 loss at home to newly promoted Parma on Saturday despite owning a 29-9 edge in shots and putting eight of those attempts on frame. A top-shelf goal by Inter loanee Federico Dimarco 11 minutes from time separated the sides, and he also saved a goal on the defensive end with a clearance of a shot by Ivan Perisic.
Despite the loss, Inter manager Luciano Spalletti was upbeat ahead of the continental opener and eager to have his side prove their worth in a challenging group that also includes evergreen side Barcelona.
“It will be a very competitive group stage and it’s very important for us to get a positive result. Both teams arrive in a similar situation and we’re both going to fight to change that feeling. We have to show our best and show we deserve to be a contender. We need to be consistent. If we are going to be a contender then we need to improve a lot.”
Spalletti also had some injury concerns ahead of this match, but a large one was expected to be alleviated with the return of striker Mauro Icardi. The Argentina international made a second-half runout versus Parma, and the Nerazzurri are eager to have him back after he bagged 29 goals in Serie A last campaign.
Per Betfair, Inter are slight favourites to win at 8/3 odds, while Tottenham Hotspur have 23/8 odds. The odds of the teams splitting the points are the longest at 10/3. A 1-1 draw appears to be the preferred outcome of oddsmakers at 6/1, followed by a 1-0 scoreline in either direction or a 0-0 draw at 17/2.
Icardi and Kane are joint-favourites for first-goal/last-goal scorers at 13/3, with Kane owning a slight edge for a goal over the 90 minutes at 21/10 compared to Icardi’s 11/5 return. Tottenham’s reserve strikers — Fernando Llorente and Heung-Mon Son are both listed at 10/3 odds to score and 7/1 odds to make it 1-0, and Inter’s Lautaro Martinez is the second choice behind Icardi at 17/5 odds at any time and 13/2 to open or close the scoring.
For all the talk of who is not playing for Spurs, one player definitely in the spotlight for the north London side is keeper Michel Vorm. The Netherlands international has not looked like a world-beater in his two starts deputising for Lloris, yielding four goals. Vorm’s lone Champions League start came last season in a dead rubber versus APOEL in group play and did not have to make a save in Spurs’ 3-0 win at Wembley in December.
This will be a much different contest, though it also appears Inter are a work in progress based on their slow start. The Nerazzurri will also be without a key defensive cog as right back Sime Vrsajlko suffered a knee injury on international duty with Croatia and is listed as day-to-day.
The issue for Inter, though, has been more offence than defence. They have scored only five goals and been held off the scoresheet in two of their four league matches. The Nerazzurri have relied heavily on Ivan Perisic, who has two of their five goals and leads the team in shots on frame (7), overall shots (16) and crosses (41).
The teams have split four all-time meetings, with the home side victorious on all four occasions. Goals have been plentiful at the San Siro, where Inter won a 2010 Champions League group game 4-3 and a second-leg round of 16 Europa League tie 4-1 three years later that allowed Spurs to escape to the next round on the away goals rule.
Tottenham’s next Champions League match will be at home against group favourites Barcelona on Oct. 3, while Inter will take to the road the same day for a contest at Dutch side PSV Eindhoven.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Inter Milan 1, Tottenham Hotspur 1.