MADRID – “This,” Giorgio Chiellini said cuttingly, “is the history of the Tottenham.”
The defender’s Juventus side had just beaten Tottenham 4-3 on aggregate in the last 16 of last season’s Champions League despite being outplayed for all but about 10 minutes of each leg, and his comment resonated. This was what Tottenham was like. It was a side that could play well for most of the game and then still find a way to lose. Sir Alex Ferguson found its mental weakness so risible that he famously once gave a team talk to Manchester United that consisted of nothing more than the words, “Lads, it’s Tottenham.” Back then, it seemed like this might be an eternal state.
For much of its post-War existence, Tottenham has been a side noted for its neat, attractive football (historically, it occupies a key space in the continuum from the invention of passing at Queen’s Park in 1872 and the development of Total Football at Ajax, then Barcelona) that was good for a cup or two both nothing more serious. Although Spurs were the first English side to win a European competition, lifting the Cup-Winners Cup in 1963, in its entire history it has won the league only twice. “Spursiness,” a preference for style over substance and a tendency to collapse at the key moment, became a defining characteristic.
Even under Mauricio Pochettino, there have been plenty of Spursy moments, beyond that defeat to Juventus. There was the disintegration at Chelsea when chasing Leicester in the title race in 2015-16; defeat to Manchester United in the FA Cup semifinal in 2017; the astonishing 5-1 loss at relegated Newcastle United on the final day in 2016 that allowed Arsenal to sneak by and pinch second place.
But in the last two rounds of the Champions League, Tottenham has been distinctly un-Spursy. Pochettino’s crotch-cupping celebration after progress against Manchester City in the quarterfinal was a very Argentinian gesture, but it also spoke of the most important attribute he has instilled Tottenham: the toughness, determination and wherewithal to dig out results even in unpromising circumstances.
“In football,” Pochettino said on Friday in his pre-final remarks before a title bout vs. Liverpool, “the result influences the analysis a lot. The team has grown strong since the start of the season. It shows that in football if you have faith, you get your rewards.”
Although Harry Winks is fit and should be able to start alongside Moussa Sissoko in midfield, Pochettino still has one major decision to make: whether Harry Kane is fit enough to start. He hasn’t played since limping out of the first leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Manchester City with an ankle injury. Pochettino said he will make his final decision after the final training session, but the indications were that Kane would start from the bench.
“The hardest thing when a game like this comes is that only 11 players can start,” he said. “I asked UEFA if the teams can take a squad picture rather than just the XI. It's about togetherness.”
If Kane does play, that will probably mean Son Heung-min switching to the left, which would probably mean Lucas Moura missing out despite having scored a hat trick in the second half of the second leg of the comeback against Ajax. But perhaps that’s just another example of the ruthlessness Pochettino has brought to Tottenham. Likeable and charismatic as he is, there is also a hard streak–Kyle Walker and Andros Townsend, for instance, were frozen out after what seemed, from the outside at least, like fairly minor incidents of insubordination.
But he is not a martinet. He may not have been as obviously relaxed as his counterpart Jurgen Klopp on Friday, but Pochettino was still in good humor, at one point standing up to show off his figure after it was suggested he’d lost weight since the end of the season.
"The most important thing tomorrow is to be free,” he said. “To play like when you were young, a child, 7, 8, 9 years old and you feel freedom. The key is not to think there's one million people watching you."
Yet the truth is that this is one of the biggest days Tottenham has ever known, not just because it is its first Champions League final, but because this is the day when it could become one of the elite–the day on which it can redefine what is meant when people speak of "the history of the Tottenham."