Tottenham, Liverpool can't leave it late in the Champions League knockout rounds
Background photo: Forthevline, CC BY-SA 3.0
Four matches into their Champions League group stage, an unimpressive draw against PSV Eindhoven left Tottenham poised to sink to the Europa League. In their final two games, Mauricio Pochettino's squad somehow found a way to progress in the more prestigious competition.
Matchday 5 brought Internazionale to Wembley. Spurs 1-0 victory carried them to last Tuesday still in with a shout. The problem was shouts are easily drowned out by 99,354 raucous Catalans supporting Barcelona in the Nou Camp.
Regardless, Poch's lads were at their best on the evening, eking out a one-goal draw, matching Inter's result against PSV at the Giuseppe Meazza, keeping the Londoners in second. It was a night to remember.
Liverpool endured a similar situation, albeit more difficult. Paris Saint-Germain controlled the group while the Reds faced their direct rival for the other qualifying berth. Anything other than victory put Napoli through at the Merseysiders' expense.
Mo Salah's first half-effort gave the Kop hope. Keeping it wasn't easy. Klopp's side laboured until the final whistle to hold Carlo Ancelotti's Partenopei at bay.
Both results change much for the two squads and for the better.
Last year's Champions League runners-up had to progress. It was the bare minimum. Otherwise, there would be no way in which they could term this tournament a success. Failing to qualify would also plant a seed of doubt in their unbeaten Premier League run and leave them too much time to think on it. Other teams who remained in the competition, including Spurs and Manchester City, would be emboldened to consider them pretenders. It's very difficult to win a title when no one respects you. Liverpool still await their first in the Premier League era.
Money invested in the squad this past summer would be overpaying for a Europa League spot. In addition, fighting to win the league while playing on Thursdays exacts a physical and psychological toll. It's a given that recovery is easier when playing Wednesday-Saturday rather than Thursday-Sunday. Tuesday games arrive every other outing and the Europa League fields more Eastern European sides, adding to the jet lag.
Jurgen Klopp must be delighted to put those worries to bed. Morale won't be negatively affected. On the contrary, their title hopes are boosted by the positive reinforcement of European success. Bring on Bayern Munich. The German knows them well.
Tottenham chase the title Liverpool now guards. They've done so throughout their Argentine manager's tenure, able to boast Wembley is "the only place you can watch Champions League football in London." Pride would have turned to disappointment if ousted from the competition before the new White Hart Lane opens in early 2019. Consistent performance is Spurs trademark but so is consistently responding to challenges.
It's a virtual guarantee Tottenham's ground won't be the only place to watch Champions League football in 2019/20. In fact, there's no guarantee it will be on offer there at all. Both Arsenal and Chelsea have strong designs on a top-four place. Spurs stunned Mauricio Sarri's Blues to claim third place in the Premier League then ceded their London dominance with a 4-2 capitulation to the Gunners in their next match. They'll have a second crack at the North London Derby Wednesday in the EFL Cup. Meanwhile, progressing in the Champions League reinforces the belief they can keep their London rivals in the rearview. Borussia Dortmund's pace is a challenge but Poch's charges can cope through their experience.
Chelsea had their go at Barcelona in last year's Champions League but couldn't deliver a result. Tottenham have. Hard work paid off in dramatic form for both Tottenham and Liverpool in their group stage finales. That said, neither should want to test the football gods' good will again. Leaving it late is a bad habit to develop.