Tottenham Hotspur travel to Stamford Bridge tomorrow for an Easter Sunday match against Chelsea that the media is already calling perhaps the most important one of the Premier League season. It’s easy to see why — Tottenham are five points ahead of the Blues in the table, and after Liverpool and Manchester United won on Saturday it looks as though the fourth and final Champions League slot will come down to one of the two teams.
Win, and Spurs will put a commanding eight point gap between themselves and the defending champions. Lose, and the gap shrinks to two, with Spurs still to play presumptive league winners Manchester City.
Tottenham haven’t won in the league at Stamford Bridge in 28 years — since before the Premier League started. It’s a difficult place to win, and Mauricio Pochettino will need to find a way to do so, perhaps without Harry Kane and Toby Alderweireld.
While there are murmurs that Kane may make a surprise return at the Bridge, the relationship between Pochettino and Alderweireld is somewhat more contentious. The Belgian defender is only just back from a recurrence of a hamstring injury and hasn’t played regularly since November. While he did put in a 90 minute shift for Belgium during the international break last week, he got middling reviews on his performance and there are some — including Pochettino — who still question his fitness.
Poch addressed the rumors in a recent press conference, but seemed to slam the brakes on the chance that Alderweireld might make his first Premier League appearance since late October.
“I need to pick the players that I believe are the best players to win against Chelsea, and then against Stoke. I cannot play with more than 11, and you need to choose. I agree that players need to play and compete. But for me, first of all, every single player needs to show in the training session that they are better than their team-mate. And then, at that moment, I pick.
“I need to pick two centre-backs, and if you are happy to keep the two [current] players, he needs to wait. If he keeps working hard, he is going to have the opportunity to play and compete. He needs to be fit, and to be fit he needs to train every day.”
In fairness, Poch is in a bit of a bind here. When healthy and fit, Alderweireld is without question Tottenham’s best central defender. The problem is he’s only barely healthy and almost certainly not fully fit. With the Chelsea match an absolutely critical one to Tottenham’s chance for top four this season, it comes down to whether Poch is willing to throw Toby into the fire at such a critical point.
You can sort of see Poch’s point, however it’s undercut by the rumors about Harry Kane possibly making a return from his ankle injury, which he sustained against Bournemouth. If Pochettino is willing to take a chance with his star striker so soon after twisting his ankle, why not do the same with one of the best central defenders in the league?
Adding to the pressure were comments from Belgium manager Roberto Martinez, who strongly implied that Alderweireld could see his World Cup spot in question if he doesn’t get regular minutes with Spurs before the end of the season. Poch, however, seemed to wave that concern off, suggesting that he wasn’t willing to potentially put Spurs’ ambitions in jeopardy just to make sure a player makes it the World Cup this summer.
“I have an amazing relationship with Roberto. I understand his comment. If I am the Belgium manager, England manager or Argentina manager, I want all my players to play.
“But my focus is to win games with Tottenham. I cannot be kind with every single manager. I need to care for my club, and we have plenty of international players. Toby, in the last four months, has struggled with his injury. I am not going to change the system because Toby needs games for the World Cup.”
Finally, hanging like an anvil over the entire situation are the rumors that this could be Alderweireld’s last season at Spurs, thanks to protracted contract negotiations that have fallen apart. It would be foolish to think that it wasn’t a factor in all of this. We’ve seen Pochettino separate out talented players for special treatment due to off-pitch issues before.
Spurs fans will be eagerly awaiting the release of the starting lineups on Easter Sunday. While few expect Alderweireld to start, naming him to the bench could have a calming effect on the situation — Poch may not be willing to risk a half-fit Toby against Chelsea, especially one with one foot out the door, but naming him as a reserve would at least be a sign that this has more to do with fitness and injury and less with Toby’s contract. It would essentially kick the can down the road, at least to the next match against Stoke.
And, if Alderweireld is not on the bench but Juan Foyth is? Well, that sends an equally important message, to everyone, but especially to Toby.