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Pochettino hails “fighter” Dele after Tottenham’s historic win over Chelsea

Dele’s taken a hit in the media the past few weeks, but he’s not worried, and neither is his manager.

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Historic. Phenomenal. Huge. All words that can be used to describe Tottenham Hotspur’s 3-1 win over Chelsea at Stamford Bridge on Easter Sunday. Spurs went into the match with a five point lead over the Blues, knowing that a win would almost assuredly clinch Champions League qualification with six games to play.

The win, which saw Spurs come from behind secure their first win at Stamford Bridge since 1990, was one that shattered several narratives: that Spurs had a poor record away against the top six, that they can’t win at Stamford Bridge, that they always fold in the big games. And for Dele Alli, who scored a brace, his performance shattered the media-driven myth that he’s been playing poorly and that his spot in England’s World Cup starting XI this summer might be in question.

Mauricio Pochettino referenced that in his post-match press conference, praising Dele for his attitude and his performance, and reminding everyone listening that he’s still a young player.

“I’m very, very pleased. It’s been a tough period for him, but for no doubt about his talent, his character. I’m so happy for him because he deserved it and he worked hard. In the end, he’s a great talent, only 21-years-old, and sometimes we lose the focus on that. He’s only 21. Sometimes the expectation is too much. Too much pressure.”

Rarely have I seen a Spurs player concern-trolled in the media the way Dele has over the past two weeks. Alli has had his ability, his commitment, his attitude, and his place in the Three Lions all questioned publicly in the papers and by pundits. It was made even worse when Dele made only one 20 minute appearance as a substitute during England’s two international friendlies, with some wondering if he was in Gareth Southgate’s plans at all.

Dele has been called a diver, and overrated, despite scoring 10 goals in all competitions this season and heading into this match as the joint fourth best assist leaders in the Premier League. It was perhaps epitomized in the televised commentary by former Chelsea player Graham Le Saux for the American broadcast on NBCSN — all of the recent Dele tropes rolled up into a single, extremely irritating commentary package.

Pochettino brushed all that off, noting that this kind of criticism doesn’t faze Dele in the slightest, calling him “a fighter.”

“Dele is not one to be affected if he plays or does not play. Dele has a great character. He’s so strong, with the personality. He’s a fighter, very competitive. He won’t be affected. Then we need to help him. If he doesn’t play with the national team, he needs to compete and give his best to try to win again the trust and confidence of his manager in the national team. The only way to win the confidence and trust from your manager is doing what he did today - scoring the goals and perform in the way that he did.”

I’m not going to say that Pochettino is wrong about Dele, but his statements are slightly contradicted by the way Dele celebrated his first goal. Cupping his hand to his ear, he ran straight to the nearest Chelsea stand to celebrate, and to invite their scorn. It was a brash, cock-sure, confident celebration, one done in full view of his critics and without a care for how it looked. Dele absolutely knew the importance of that goal and how it upended the prevailing narrative. And he didn’t care.

“I’ve never worried much about what people think,” Dele told Sky Sports after the match. That may be true, but I suspect that he cares more than what he lets on. He certainly silenced his critics at Stamford Bridge, at least for now.