Tottenham will once again hope to send shock waves around Europe by defeating another continental giant, this time in the shape of Barcelona. The fixture arrives in timely fashion for Spurs, who have recovered from three successive defeats that had the word ‘crisis’ reverberating around the tabloid headlines. Three wins in a week will instil confidence in the players, especially against a Barcelona side winless in three matches.
Nonetheless, this remains a test of the highest difficulty. A man that knows more than most about the toils of European football is Tottenham legend Micky Hazard. The former midfielder — who earned his legendary status by winning both the FA and UEFA Cups with Spurs in 1982 and 1984 respectively — cannot contain his “excitement” for the upcoming fixture.
“I cannot wait for Wednesday night to get here, I’m going to Barcelona too,” Hazard told the Sports Gazette. “Barcelona have been the best club side in the world for the last 15-20 years and I’m so excited to see them in the flesh.”
Reflecting on last season’s home and away Champions League success against Real Madrid, as well as his own experience against both La Liga giants, Hazard invokes one notable difference.
“While the teams I played against had fantastic players, they didn’t have the best player in the world. Not only do we have the excitement of Barcelona, but also the excitement of seeing Lionel Messi playing against our team. That creates double the excitement.”
The temptation to simply stand in awe and marvel at Messi — one of the greatest to play the game — is extremely pertinent, but Hazard recognises that this is a game Tottenham should aim to win, especially after a disappointing 2-1 away defeat to Inter Milan in their group stage opener.
“Do I think we have a chance? Of course we’ve got a chance. I think they’re having a bit of a slump. I don’t think we’re anywhere near our best, but if we’re going to win we need to find a way of stifling Messi. If you stifle him, you stifle Barcelona. That’s the big dilemma and thankfully it’s not mine.”
Despite his relief in not having to carry out the impossible task himself, Hazard was quick to offer manager Mauricio Pochettino a word of invaluable advice, admittedly among some laughter.
“I have got a recommendation for Pochettino, if he’s prepared to listen. Pick me and I’ll man-mark Messi. Sorry, I’ll rephrase — pick me, and he’ll have to mark me!”
Trying to shackle Messi is an obvious strategy to deploy against Barcelona — as Leganes demonstrated to great effect in their historic 2-1 victory last Wednesday — but Hazard, too, noted that it’s more important that Tottenham focus on themselves, rather than the opposition.
“It’s a game that we hope, and can, get something out of. I would approach it by playing our own game. I’ve never been one to worry too much about the opposition. I always think to pick a team and a system that will create problems for the opposition. That’s how I was brought up at Spurs. We were not worried about the opposition, let them worry about us. Assert your game on them, that’s the secret. That’s what we did to Real Madrid and they couldn’t cope.”
What’s concerning, however, is the number of key players potentially missing the game through injury. Dele Alli is sidelined, though Hugo Lloris has returned to training this week and Pochettino is hopeful Christian Eriksen can also return.
Mousa Dembele and Jan Vertonghen, similarly, were substituted with injuries at half time in the 2-0 victory over Huddersfield on Saturday, while question marks eternally linger over the fitness of Harry Kane. Injury, though, in Hazard’s opinion, is not an excuse.
“We shouldn’t worry about who will be fit to play. I remember the UEFA Cup final. No Glenn Hoddle, Steve Perryman, Ossie Ardiles, Ray Clemence or Garth Crooks. Five regular starters and five superstars. You’ve got to play with what you’ve got. No excuses. We played with kids that day and we won. You can’t cry over spilt milk. Move on and trust the players you’ve got out there.”
On Kane, Hazard said: “Harry’s a goalscorer. I think he’s looked jaded, of course. He’s had non-stop football for four years, but would I have left him out? No, not a chance. He’s the most prolific goalscorer in the Premier League. Would you leave Messi out because he played at the World Cup? No. I would never leave out Harry as he scores goals, simple as that.”
Kane arguably dispelled doubts over his physical condition with a brace against Huddersfield, increasing his tally to five goals in seven Premier League games this season. In doing so, he overtook Jermain Defoe to become Tottenham’s fifth all-time top goalscorer. With Cliff Jones (159) and Martin Chivers (174) in the cross-hairs, Hazard thinks Kane can match their status.
“Jimmy Greaves, for me, is the best goal scorer in our history. I won’t compare Harry to Greaves, but one day they will be comparable. I think he’s more than capable of smashing Jimmy’s record (266) for Spurs. It wouldn’t surprise me if he did it quickly. He’s fifth now, but in touching distance of Jones and Chivers. By the end of the season he could have surpassed them both.”
Although Spurs were initially scheduled to open the doors to their new stadium on September 15th, the move has been delayed, with all three Champions League home games to be played at Wembley Stadium. The fictional ‘Wembley curse’ was thankfully laid to rest last season, but Hazard still points out the difficulties playing at the national stadium can produce.
“It’s not home. It never will be home, but it’s ultimately the best second choice. If you’re going to have to leave your stadium then Wembley isn’t a bad place to go. Do I like it? No, it will never feel like home. But if you asked me whether there’s anywhere else you’d rather play in the meantime, I’d say no. Wembley is a wonderful place to play football, but it will never be the same as when we walk through the gates of our new stadium.”
The wait for the new stadium is undoubtedly arduous, but there are rewards to be reaped upon completion.
“Pretty soon we are going to have a new stadium that will have a much greater capacity, therefore bringing in far greater financial clout. We’re going to be competing on a level footing financially with 99% of other football clubs. We’ll have a better opportunity to compete. I really feel the route to success is getting much closer.”
Financial muscle deriving from increased revenue streams from the new stadium is only one side of the coin. The other, which some may argue is more important, is silverware. Tottenham have not won a trophy since the League Cup in 2008, while Pochettino has never won one as a manager. But Hazard believes the two can harmonise, with the stadium the focal point of a greater long-term project, designed to keep the club at the pinnacle of European football for the foreseeable future.
“I’m desperate to win trophies. Last season, when we lost the [FA Cup] semi-final to Manchester United, I couldn’t speak. If you look at the Ryder Cup, you see people who win millions playing tournaments. But when they win the Ryder Cup, you see them celebrating like they’re football fans seeing their team win — and they don’t get paid. That’s what it means. That’s what the game’s about — glory.”
“When you’re building for the long term, you won’t win trophies straight away. You build to give opportunities to win trophies every year over a long period of time. It doesn’t happen overnight and from our starting point four or five years ago, it’s incredible. If you can’t see where we’re at then open your eyes.”
The progression Tottenham have made under Pochettino is indeed undeniable, but it’s still not enough to satiate the hunger of certain sections of the fanbase. It begs the question, though: Will it ever be? Nonetheless, Tottenham fans can unite on one thing. All are hoping their team continues to flourish in what promises to be an enthralling encounter at Wembley.
Featured photograph/Tottenham Hotspur