If this week is any indication, it is going to be a long five months for the Tottenham Hotspur media relations department.
The Mauricio Pochettino sweepstakes have informally started, and the Spurs manager will try to keep the distractions about his future to a minimum, starting with Sunday’s contest at Goodison Park versus Everton.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
With the not completely unexpected sacking of Jose Mourinho at Manchester United during the week, speculation is already rampant that Pochettino is the person the higher-ups at Old Trafford want to restore the English football titans to the levels of greatness achieved under Sir Alex Ferguson.
Spanish perennials Real Madrid are also rumoured to be wanting his services, and despite having to pay the entirety of Pochettino’s £34 million contract for the next four seasons since there is no reserve clause, neither side will blink at such a figure – after all, £90 million signing Paul Pogba watched United lose Mourinho’s finale to Liverpool from the bench.
But the Spurs media relations crew is desperate to keep the attention on the team, with this week’s availability with Pochettino descending into a tete-a-tete between Simon Felstein and a reporter who was rebuffed in his bid to ask the Argentine about the rumours. For his part, Pochettino seemed bemused by the back and forth, at one point jokingly telling Felstein, “You’ll be the star of the press conference!”
At one point, the cameras were turned off before the assembled media finally changed the subject of their questions to this match, but it is also clear this will be an on-going drama until Pochettino offers some sort of definitive answer about his future.
On the pitch, Spurs (13-0-4) are unbeaten in their last five (4-1-0) in all competitions and avenged their most recent defeat with a 2-0 victory over north London rivals Arsenal in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup on Wednesday. Dele Alli was both provider and finisher, setting up Heung-Min Son’s goal on 20 minutes before being set up by talisman Harry Kane to seal the win just before the hour.
Pochettino also praised his young midfielder for the poise he showed at the Emirates after getting hit by a plastic bottle thrown from the stands.
“I think it was an amazing reaction. In another country maybe player go down on the pitch and create a big problem. Dele is so honest and professional. He behaved really, really well,” Pochettino beamed about his 22-year-old star. “His behaviour was top. I think the Arsenal people, the club, must be grateful with him. In different situation player go down and create a massive problem and it would be difficult to manage after that for the referee and for the people there.
“I think the behaviour was top from Dele. Sometimes in the people criticise him in the past for some actions of the game. I think it is good today to praise him because his behaviour was top.”
In terms of selection, it is possible Pochettino will restore Juan Foyth into central defence as part of a rotation for the busy holiday fixtures, and Hugo Lloris will return between the sticks after Paulo Gazzaniga turned in a clean sheet. Oliver Skipp could return to the first XI as Mousa Dembele continues to deal with an ankle injury.
Centre back Jan Vertonghen and midfielder Eric Dier remain longer-term absentees with thigh and appendix ailments, respectively.
While it is another chance for Everton (6-6-5) to get a victory against a Big Six side – the Toffees have taken just one point from the first five such clashes after a 3-1 loss at Manchester City last weekend – this match will be an interesting test of the identity Marco Silva is trying to create for his side.
Silva opted for a five-man back line against City after daring to go toe-to-toe in the previous high-profile encounters. Since this match is at Goodison, it is more likely Everton will resort to their customary 4-2-3-1 set-up in which Richarlison leads the line. The biggest debate point is if Dominic Calvert-Lewin, who scored Everton’s goal versus City, will be kept in the first XI for a second straight match over Theo Walcott.
“I believe in our team and our squad,” Silva said at his Friday news conference. “And I believe the atmosphere in our stadium will help us to achieve a good result – and for us a good result is to win the match. It will be a good opportunity for us to show our quality.
“We will respect them. But we have all the confidence to play our game, to do everything to win the match and show we are able to beat them.”
Everton have no injury concerns and will get a boost to their depth for the holiday fixtures with the expected availability of midfielder James McCarthy. The Ireland international has been out of action since January following a broken leg suffered in a match against West Brom last term and has seen playing time with the U-23 squad as he builds match fitness.
The Lilywhites recorded an emphatic double last term, smashing seven past Everton keeper Jordan Pickford without reply as they extended their unbeaten run over the Toffees to 11 (6-5-0). Kane had a brace in both victories, including the 3-0 victory as Tottenham are 2-3-0 in their last five at Goodison since a 2-1 loss in 2012.
Per Bet365, Tottenham are firm 13/10 favourites to pick up a fifth win in six matches and keep the heat on Liverpool and Manchester City, while Everton are respectable 9/4 underdogs. There are 5/2 odds on the teams splitting the points.
Oddsmakers are expecting goals in this match, with 8/11 odds to surpass the 2.5-goal threshold compared to 11/10 under it. They also are expecting both teams to score, with a “yes” pick garnering 8/13 odds in contrast to 6/5 odds for one team to record a clean sheet.
After coming off the bench midweek, Kane is the leader for first goal-scoring options at 3/1, followed by teammate Fernando Llorente (11/2). Richarlison is the top pick among the hosts at 6/1, with Cenk Tosun a step back at 13/2. Son offers a 7/1 return while Lucas Moura and Calvert-Lewin are both 15/2, and Alli and Walcott are 8/1.
Kane’s menacing form against Everton last term contributes to him being a 5/6 selection to score at any point during the match, with Llorente getting 13/8 odds. Richarlison and Tosun again lead the Toffees’ 90-minute picks at 7/4 and 2/1, respectively, with Son 21/10.
Calvert-Lewin and Moura are both 9/4, and Alli and Walcott are joined together again, this time at 5/2.
And so it begins.
What makes the Pochettino so intriguing, aside from the fact it will likely take at least six months to play out, is to see if there is anyone beyond United and Madrid who are willing to pay the £35 million admission price to eat that contract he’s signed with Spurs.
For United, a Janaury sale of Pogba could result in — while a loss in terms of buying the selling of the midfielder — £60 million, which would be more than enough to not only cover his existing contract but also put a good two years on whatever price tag a 4 or 5-year deal creates. Madrid may wind up selling Christian Bale a year too late, but he too can command a high eight-figure transfer fee that can go into the war chest for bidding.
But what does it all mean for Spurs? Is there a new-found urgency to win the Premier League title? Will this galvanise a Champions League run come February? One of the things that has made Spurs, well, Spurs is that they cycle through both players and coaches. This seems to be the latest chapter, but fraught with so much more risk because it would be hard to make Tottenham a footballer’s destination without Pochettino, regardless of all the shiny bells and whistles the new White Hart Lane has.
This is a maturing Lilywhites team, from Pochettino on down. Many of the players are England-based, which means they gained a good measure of success this summer from the World Cup, and once those players pushed past the physical fatigue from that tournament, the results have shown on the pitch domestically and in Champions League. It sounds a little far-fetched before Christmas, but third place could very well be the floor for this team this season.
Then there are the Toffees, whose results scream the continuation of being a star-crossed club while Silva tries to break things down to build them back up. While it is understood why they played five at the back at City, that loss was a lesson to him and his players to be true to themselves.
The team that scrapped with Chelsea and got a scoreless draw and the team that was simply unlucky not to nick a point at Anfield — THAT is the Everton team Silva needs them to be for this term in order to kick onto the next level in the long game.
One would like to believe there is a finite amount of these kind of losses Everton can absorb before the light bulb goes off, with Digne’s equaliser versus Watford one such example of the good things that can happen. If this match was coming after one against their peers, the bounce back would have a better chance of taking place. But in successive matches, the task is more difficult.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Everton 1, Tottenham Hotspur 2.