The boy from the small Argentinian town of Murphy has taken a long and winding road via Barcelona, Southampton, and Tottenham, to see for the first time his family’s ancestral home in Piedmont, Italy, but Mauricio Pochettino feels at home in Turin — and does not think Spurs should feel out of place at the Allianz Stadium where they face Juventus tonight.
Pochettino admitted he felt emotional to set foot for the first time in that part of northern Italy from whence his forebears set sail for Argentina over a century ago.
Now he is hoping to take his bright young Tottenham team to a new level, as the relative newcomers to the Champions League face footballing aristocracy.
Juventus, the Old Lady, have had a new lease of life under Masimilliano Allegri, winning a record three successive Serie A and Coppa Italia doubles, as well as reaching the Champions League final twice in three years.
They are in a rich vein of form right now, with 11 straight victories and only one goal conceded in their past 16 games in all competitions.
Spurs are not doing too badly, either, unbeaten in 12 games and coming off the back of comprehensive wins over Manchester United and Arsenal at Wembley.
The Allianz Stadium has not seen the home side beaten in 26 European games going back to April 2013.
Pochettino knows his boys are in for a real test, similar to the one they passed with flying colours by holding Real Madrid to a 1-1 draw in the Bernabeu last October before beating the reigning European Champions 3-1 at home a fortnight later.
“Juventus is a massive club, and we cannot compare with them. In their history they have won everything, and in the last three seasons Juventus has reached two Champions League finals. At Tottenham we are a very young team, we are building a nice project, building new facilities like the training ground and new stadium. It’s impossible to compare the histories of Juventus and Tottenham.
“But of course we are trying to reach the level of Juventus. We are going to be competitive tomorrow and we’ll see if we can compete at this level.”
On a personal note, he said: “I am so happy to be here, my first time after 45 years. I always heard about Turin, and Piedmont, and the small town where my great, great grandfather left on a trip to Argentina so of course I am so excited.
“But my focus is on tomorrow, to play the game and be competitive.”
Since the group stages, Pochettino has been buoyed by signing Brazlian winger Lucas Moura from Paris St Germain. He also has a squad without injuries, although Toby Alderweireld was left in London as he recovers from the hamstring injury he sustained against Madrid 14 weeks ago.
The Belgian defender returned to action in last week’s FA Cup replay win against Newport County, but looked some way short of match fitness. Pochettino explained Alderweireld’s absence is more about rehabilitation than anything more sinister, with the player yet to sign a new contract.
“It is three-and-a-half months since he suffered a massive injury, and from the day he got injured, our idea was to create a plan with the medical team and sports science staff to help him, which is the most important thing. He is 28 and we need to be cautious because we cannot put his career at risk, so we designed a plan to provide him with best tools to recover and be stronger than before.”
Allegri may have a similar dilemma with his star player Paulo Dybala, who tore a hamstring last month but returned to training yesterday.
Pochettino rates his compatriot highly: “Dybala is a great player, an Argentine! Like Messi, Neymar, or Cristiano Ronaldo, he has the ability to bring to the team a different dimension.
“But there are a lot of players at Juve who can do that too. We watched a lot of games, with Dybala, and without him. We need to reach the same level as Juventus with motivation, energy, and the desire to compete — but not with the same experience as them.”
Harry Kane was described by Juve midfielder Sami Khedira as “the complete striker” and Tottenham’s talisman took the compliment. “It’s great, it gives me great confidence,” said Kane. “Whenever people praise me I take that try to use it in a positive way.”
It was seven years ago this week that Spurs last won a Champions League match in Italy, when Peter Crouch struck in a 1-0 win over AC Milan at the San Siro at the same stage of the competition. Would it be too much to ask Kane to repeat that feat?
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved