Coming off of three consecutive defeats to Watford, Liverpool, and Inter Milan, thinking about our chances against more elite competition is... unnerving. Sadly, the Champions League schedule was not made to soothe supporters’ nerves, and our next European game is just two weeks away. Today, I’ll try to take my mind off of the Inter match by taking a look ahead to some crucial battles against our next group stage opponents.
Barcelona (October 3 at home, December 11 away)
Ahh! You’d be a fool if you didn’t feel existential dread about these matches, right? Wrong! Just kidding. You’d be a huge fool. We should be very worried. Barca is the favorite in this group, with an all-star lineup that won La Liga and advanced to the quarter finals of the Champions League (one stage further than we did). We will need to be in inspired form against them, especially now that we lost to Inter. Without a result against Barca, our chances of making it past the group stage will be slim. Although our recent form is cause for concern, Tottenham have earned the opportunity to compete against Barcelona, and last year we held our own against the best in Europe, including Juve, Real Madrid, and Dortmund, so maybe we’ll dominate the Spanish giants this year. Bring it on—or not.
Barca’s front three vs. Tottenham’s center backs
It’s hard to predict which defensive system we’ll use against Barcelona. We played three center backs against Watford and two against Liverpool and Inter. We lost all three games 2-1, and it’s unclear if the back three provides enough defensive solidity to offset the way it restricts our attack. However Poch sets up our defense against Barcelona, they’ll have a tall task in dealing with three superstar attackers—Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez, and Ousmane Dembele—whose interplay in and around the box is excellent. Dembele is in an especially exciting moment right now. In his debut season for Barca last year, he started slow, suffering a series of injury setbacks through the fall and winter, but he won the World Cup with France over the summer, and lately he has found inspired form, scoring three and assisting four in La Liga since the start of the season. Did I mention he’s only 21? As far as Messi and Suarez are concerned, their respective reputations precede them. Hopefully nobody bites Jan Vertonghen. It will not be enough to simply defend well against Barca—we need a strong attack—but our defense will be absolutely crucial to our chances of beating them, and that will hinge on how well our center backs manage one of the strongest front threes in the world.
Philippe Coutinho vs. Mousa Dembele/Eric Dier
Barca finally completed their long-anticipated signing of Liverpool’s star player for a club record fee in January of last year. In the time since, he’s shown why he was valued so highly. He had a fine start to his club season last spring before becoming one of Brazil’s best players at the World Cup. Coutinho is no stranger to playing against Spurs, and Tottenham’s defensive midfielders are no strangers to Coutinho. This means that we can expect the midfield battle to be decided by the thin margins of a fight between players who know each other well. It will be exciting to watch Coutinho in a new context and a new system, even more so now that he’s had time to learn and adapt to it. As far as the Spurs defensive midfielders are concerned, Moose and Dier will need to step up and drastically improve their form or we won’t stand a chance.
Harry Kane vs. Gerard Pique and Samuel Umtiti
Spain’s Gerard Pique and France’s Samuel Umtiti each have a World Cup medal to their name and are now Barcelona’s preferred center-back partnership. Umtiti is only 24 and well along his way to becoming one of the best center-backs in the game. Last season, he had a few blips, but also some exceptional performances. This year, he will hope to iron out the wrinkles in his game alongside one of the greatest defenders of the past decade. Pique, on the other hand, is nearing the tail end of his career, which means that he has years of experience playing on the biggest stages and will show it against Spurs. Like with Milan Skriniar for Inter, the game against Barcelona will provide another opportunity for Kane to assert his dominance against elite European defenses.
This week, Philippe Coutinho lamented that Lionel Messi’s Barcelona has won only one of the past five Champion Leagues, which tells you all you need to know about this team’s expectations. I’ve been happy that Spurs are in the Champions League, never mind the results. (Who am I kidding—why haven’t we won yet?!) Competing against teams of this caliber is the way forward for Tottenham, and if we could repeat last year’s group stage form against another Spanish giant, it would be massive for our morale and our hopes in this tournament.