Tottenham Hotspur’s bid to return to the Champions League knockout round for a second straight year has hit a seminal moment as the Spurs host Inter Milan in a crunch encounter Wednesday at Wembley Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
(Editor’s Note — Miranda likely to start at right back for the injured Vraslko for Inter)
Left for dead with just one point from their first three matches after being held to a 2-2 draw at PSV Eindhoven, the Lilywhites (1-1-2) began their fight back with a 2-1 victory over the Dutch side in their most recent Champions League contest. Harry Kane’s brace in the final 12 minutes erased an early deficit, and Tottenham got some help from Barcelona, who recorded a draw at Inter earlier this month to raise the stakes for this contest.
The motivation to prove the naysayers wrong runs deep for Spurs gaffer Mauricio Pochettino, who told The Guardian at Tuesday’s news conference, “Yes, a massive motivation. When people say that something is going to be difficult, for me, it’s like, ah, I’m so excited to show them it’s completely different.”
The victory over PSV is one of five on the trot currently for the Spurs, with Pochettino showing his tactical chops in his side’s most convincing performance of the season, a 3-1 romp over London derby rival Chelsea in which Tottenham dealt Maurizio Sarri his first loss since arriving at Stamford Bridge.
Pochettino’s decision to play a diamond in font of his back four with Dele Alli serving as the top point to feed Kane and Heung-Min Son completely defused Sarri’s 4-3-3 set-up as Spurs turned Jorginho’s lack of elite pace against him and exploited the gaps created when Chelsea’s midfielders pressed forward.
Alli and Kane both scored off passes from Christian Eriksen in the first 16 minutes, and Son completed the scoring by latching onto a pass from Alli on the flank and blazing past and around Jorginho before slotting home shortly after the restart.
But the Argentine manager is rightly concerned about his threadbare defence for this contest, and with good reason. Jan Vertonghen is being pushed back into duty in central defence after missing the past 10 matches with a hamstring injury. Pochettino would have preferred to use Juan Foyth to partner with Toby Alderweireld, but the Argentine was not one of the 17 non-locally players Tottenham submitted to UEFA for their group play roster.
“When you need to take a decision from the beginning, you cannot guess what’s going to happen,” said Pochettino, who placed the blame for his side’s imbalance at the feet of the club’s higher-ups following their dormancy in the summer transfer window. “Central defence was a position where we had players, but we have Davinson injured and Jan was injured. That is why we use Juan. I am happy with Juan and his evolution but I am so disappointed we cannot come with him in the Champions League.”
Left back Danny Rose could make his return in this match after an eight-game absence due to injury, though Ben Davies has deputised well in his absence. Serge Aurier again gets the call at right back since Kieran Trippier remains sidelined due to a groin injury.
Inter (2-1-1) enter this match with a margin of error since they have the easier final Champions League tie of the two — at home versus PSV compared to Tottenham having to try and get a result at Barcelona.
The Nerazzurri will be without right back Sime Vrsaljko, who picked up a thigh injury while on international duty with Croatia and did not make the trip to London. He also missed the first encounter between the teams, and like that match, Miranda is expected to take his place.
Luciano Spalletti’s side ended a two-match winless spell with a 3-0 drubbing of Frosinone on Saturday as Keita Balde had a brace on either side of halftime and assisted on Lautaro Martinez’s goal on 57 minutes. Inter are a comfortable third in the Serie A table but also nine points adrift of front-running Juventus and one back of Napoli through 13 matches.
“The game tomorrow will be a straight knockout to ensure that things remain in our hands,” Spalletti said as Inter look to progress out of the group stages for the first time in six years. “To just approach it as an ordinary group stage game is a risk we can’t take. We want to keep going down this road. We must think that qualification depends on the result tomorrow night.
“From when the draw was made, we knew that we’d have to knock out one of the biggest European teams to make the next round. Tottenham are a strong team with a great manager but we have the quality to take anyone on. Inter had been waiting for years to play in matches like this. The important thing is to show the fans that we’re ready to give anything to win. We need to work till the final drop of sweat to go through.”
Mauro Icardi, who began Inter’s fight back in the reverse fixture with a goal in the 86th minute at the San Siro, has a team-high 10 goals for the Nerazzurri. At three goals, Radja Nainggolan is the only other player with more than two as Inter have 30 goals overall.
Also of note is keeper Samir Handanovic has yet to post a clean sheet in the group stage despite having seven in Serie A.
Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are strong 8/11 favourites to win and carry their hopes of advancing into the final match day at the Nou Camp versus Barcelona. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 14/5, while Inter are 7/2 underdogs to win at Wembley and end Tottenham’s hopes of returning to the knockout round for a second straight season.
The Lilywhites have 6/4 odds to post a victory with a goal total above 2.5, and there are 15/4 odds for a 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline for the hosts at Wembley. There are 21/5 odds on a draw that ends either 0-0 or 1-1, while the Nerazzurri are an 11/2 choice to post a second win over Tottenham with more than 2.5 goals. A win with fewer than 2.5 goals for the visitors or a 2-2 draw or higher have 10/1 odds.
Kane, to no one’s surprise, is the top option to open the scoring in the match with 13/5 odds, followed by Spurs reserve striker Fernando Llorente (9/2). Icardi is Inter’s first listing at 11/2 with Tottenham’s Lucas Moura and Erik Lamela rounding out the top five at 13/2. Son sneaks in behind the Lilywhites duo at 7/1. Martinez and Ivan Perisic complete Inter’s top three choices with 9/1 odds, with Eriksen just ahead of them at 17/2.
The Three Lions talisman is a better than even money pick to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 4/5 odds, with Llorente again second at 6/4. Icardi again tops the toteboard for Inter options, this time at 9/5, while Moura and Lamela are paired together once more — this time at 21/10 while Son is an 11/5 pick. Martinez rates slightly higher at 14/5 for an any-time goal compared to Perisic’s 3/1 potential return.
It’s hard to tell if Pochettino was feeling good about himself after that Chelsea win or genuinely aggravated about not being able to use Foyth in this match, but there is no doubt the English media are going to have a field day with his comments about what Tottenham failed to do during the summer window.
This will undoubtedly start a whole new round of rumours regarding his desire to stay at Spurs, which in some ways has been par for the course in a season of fits and starts that includes an unexpected second season at Wembley Stadium due to the extended delays of renovating White Hart Lane.
Yet Pochettino is correct in the sense this is not entirely his fault, though no one would have expected Tottenham’s defence to be ravaged so thoroughly by injury. Foyth is arguably the fourth centre back on the depth chart and seventh overall, so it does also speak to the side’s scouts they have coped so well to this point.
Spalletti’s comments about going for it in this match are somewhat surprising given Inter can play for the draw in this match and then wrap things up at the San Siro versus PSV. But with already-qualified Barcelona likely to field a second-choice lineup in that last match versus Tottenham, there is some merit to his belief the Nerazzurri should be playing for three points.
And with neither team recording a clean sheet in group play, it has all the makings of a combustible up-and-down match. Much of Tottenham’s play is going to be carried through the middle without Trippier, though Davies has been a revelation and can offer support on the left. Pochettino used a 4-3-1-2 formation in the first match between the teams, so it is feasible the diamond midfield he used versus Chelsea will get a second look here.
If Inter can withstand Spurs’ pressure in the first half-hour, there will be opportunities for them to break down the Lilywhites defence. Just how willing the Nerazzurri pour forward after that, specifically in terms of testing Vertonghen’s match fitness, will go a long way in determining if Spalletti’s side are truly viewing this as a knockout contest like he claims.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Tottenham Hotspur 3, Inter Milan 1.
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