Sissoko: from zero to hero

The mixed zone after a big match can be a brutal place.

Sissoko: from zero to hero

The mixed zone after a big match can be a brutal place.

The area where post-match interviews are conducted can turn into a bunfight, an unseemly scrum when a stellar name walks out of the dressing room ready for the cameras and microphones.

It is where players are asked searching questions and even informed for the first time that they are out of the next big game, as happened when Branislav Ivanovic found out from reporters he would miss the 2012 Champions League final.

It can be just as telling, when a player walks through time and time again with no-one from the media wanting to stop them for their thoughts, either because they are deemed uninteresting or even pitiable, so lamentable have their performances been.

So it was with Moussa Sissoko, whose first two seasons at Tottenham were so painful for the player and those watching him, that few members of the media asked him to share his thoughts.

The man who had arrived for a club record €33m from Newcastle was such a flop in that first year or two that the sight of his name on the teamsheet elicited sighs of despair from Tottenham supporters.

Now, their hearts sink when his name is missing from the teamsheet, such is the transformation in a player whose career has had more than a few highs and lows.

Tomorrow in Madrid, Sissoko has a chance to help Tottenham make history, having done so much to help Mauricio Pochettino’s team reach their first final in Europe’s premier competition.

And he is the first to admit that the manager’s faith in him, through thick and thin, has been invaluable as he has made the transformation from liability to likeability.

The big Frenchman with Malian origins looks intimidating on the pitch, with a mean glare and the physique of a light-heavyweight.

But off the pitch, now he is starting to get used to being asked for his thoughts in the mixed zone, he has an easy manner and a ready smile.

“Confidence is a big part of football,” he says, trying to explain why his fortunes have changed so much in a year.

“I played at the beginning of the season and I did well and I’ve kept on playing, so I became more confident on the pitch. That’s why I’m playing like this now.”

And how much of it was down to Pochettino? “Since I came to the club I’ve always said the same thing — he’s a great manager and he’s doing a great job.

Moussa Sissoko getting the Spurs Player of the Season award from his manager Mauricio Pochettino
Moussa Sissoko getting the Spurs Player of the Season award from his manager Mauricio Pochettino

“At the beginning, I didn’t play a lot and I wanted to play more but for different reasons I didn’t play like I wanted.

"But the team was strong so I needed to accept it, keep working and that’s what I’ve done. You need time to adapt when you join a club and it was not easy, but I feel I have done that.

“Now I’m playing, doing well, so it’s a good time for me. I need to keep going like that, improve more if I can and give my best.”

One of the players keeping him out of the side in his first two seasons was namesake Mousa Dembele, who was a huge crowd favourite at Tottenham and one of the first names on Pochettino’s teamsheet when fit.

It is no coincidence that Sissoko has blossomed since Dembele departed, off to China last January after an injury-ravaged start to the season.

Sissoko has taken over the responsibility Dembele once shouldered, a powerful holding player who can break up play and carry the ball forward with strong runs and intelligent passing.

In football parlance, Sissoko is now ‘bossing midfield’ the way Dembele used to, and the supporters have adapted the latter’s song for the Frenchman. “Oooh, Moussa Sissoko,” comes the chant to the tune of the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army”.

It is not only the supporters who sing it. Those videos that have emerged from the dressing room after dramatic wins against Manchester City and Ajax show his team-mates singing his name, acknowledging the part he is playing in their success.

They were also singing that song when he was presented the club’s player of the season award in front of his team-mates while preparing for the final.

Such is his stamina and strength that Sissoko can be deployed almost anywhere on the pitch when the going gets tough, and in the dramatic closing stages of Tottenham’s semi-final win in Amsterdam, Sissoko was effectively a one-man back line as Pochettino pushed everyone up.

It was his long ball forward in the sixth minute of stoppage time that eventually fell for Lucas Moura to score the goal that sent Spurs through to the final.

He is, however, modest about his achievements. “Maybe now that I’m playing, I bring some luck to the team,” he says.

“I think we deserve all these things. Since the beginning of the season the team has worked very hard and have done some good things.

We missed a chance to fight with Liverpool and Manchester City for the (Premier League) title and we lost in the semi-finals of the Carabao Cup against Chelsea, but we have qualified (for the CL final) by beating some of the best teams in the world and I’m very happy for that.

Now Jurgen Klopp’s side stand between Spurs and greatness.

“Liverpool have had a great season, but lost out to City for the title. The Champions League is another competition, and they will be ready, especially as they lost the final last year, but the important thing is to focus on ourselves and not think too much about them.

“To win the Champions League won’t be easy but we know we can challenge against any team, and we never give up. That is why we are here now.”

And win or lose, Tottenham’s supporters will be right behind Sissoko, who has become a firm favourite.

“Right now I have a good relationship with them, they like me so I’m very happy for that.

"It’s a good feeling to have this kind of relationship with the fans and it’s because they know I give my best on the pitch and try to fight in every game.

“If they are happy I’m doing well then I’m happy as well.”

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