Mauricio Pochettino says he is living his dream as he prepares to lead Tottenham into the Champions League semi-final against Ajax and he believes the club’s progress owes everything to the power of positive thinking.
Spurs entertain Ajax in Tuesday night’s first-leg at their £1bn stadium and it will be only the second time in their history they have competed in the last four of Europe’s elite competition. The first was in 1962 when they lost to Benfica 4-3 on aggregate.
Pochettino is proud of the work he has done during his five seasons as the Spurs manager, making the team more competitive while money has been poured into improving the club’s facilities. “Not in the history of football can another story like Tottenham’s be repeated,” he said.
But Pochettino has always been a person to dream big; he borrowed a line from the Disney cartoon hero Buzz Lightyear when he said that “you need to settle your dreams in the infinity and beyond” – which drew a few smiles. It was plain that Pochettino intended to keep on reaching for the stars.
“I am already living my dream,” Pochettino said. “To be in the semi-final with Tottenham was a dream five years ago and we are living the dream. But you must always dream with the moon if you want to get to the sky. When you are ambitious and you want to achieve big things, you need to set your dream.
“I was always a dreamer. When I was very young, I dreamed in my home town of Murphy that one day I would be a football player and I achieved that. It was tough to achieve all that I dreamed but I always believe there is some energy, the power in your mind, and when you are determined to achieve the things that you dream, it’s only about waiting and working hard to try to get them. When you achieve things in life, it’s because first of all you’ve dreamed them and put them in your mind.”
Pochettino reflected on a journey at Spurs that began when he attended a meeting with Daniel Levy at the chairman’s house. “He was without shoes, dressed in pyjamas, but it was the afternoon, not the night – it’s the truth,” the manager said. “We talked first of all about the squad and they showed me it was 34 or 35 players. I said: ‘It’s an NFL squad. How are you going to handle that?’
“The principle objective was to help the club to build – to finish the training ground, to build the new stadium and to be competitive at the same time. We have done that and, after five years, we must congratulate everyone here. Maybe we still haven’t won a trophy but what we are doing now is more than just a trophy.”
Pochettino has selection problems. Son Heung-min is suspended, Harry Kane, Harry Winks, Érik Lamela and Serge Aurier are injured, and Moussa Sissoko is doubtful with a groin problem. Winks has undergone groin surgery and he will miss the remainder of the domestic season, though he could return for the Champions League final on 1 June if Spurs were to beat Ajax.
Sissoko, who suffered his injury in the second leg of the quarter-final at Manchester City on 17 April, was able to train on Monday, together with Jan Vertonghen, who sat out Saturday’s Premier League defeat against West Ham as a precaution, having felt muscle fatigue.
Pochettino’s resources have been stretched at the least opportune moment – “We are very limited,” he admitted – while his players looked tired in the second half against West Ham. Ajax, by contrast, were granted the weekend off by the Dutch Football Association. Pochettino said “stress and fatigue” had been a factor after the West Ham game but he had changed his tune on Monday.
“We ran four kilometres more than West Ham – 114kms to 110kms,” Pochettino said. “When you lose it’s easy to say ‘tired’ but it’s wrong. The problem we had was they were clinical and we were not. This semi-final is a game where it’s impossible to be tired. It’s all mental. And the energy is going to be there.
“We are not worried [about the absentees] because we are competitive like a team. Our strength is that we think like this. To play a semi-final in our new stadium is something nobody could think about a few months ago and we feel a responsibility now we are here. But the excitement, motivation and happiness are bigger than any responsibility.”
Pochettino repeated his contention that Ajax’s greater preparation time is an unfair advantage, although he said he would not use it as an excuse. Erik ten Hag, the Amsterdam club’s manager, gave the talking point short shrift.
“We play in the Eredivisie and we get 10 million euros from TV and Tottenham gets much more,” Ten Hag said. “Is that unfair for us? Those are the circumstances. You just have to deal with them.”
Ajax opened their pre-match training session at Spurs’ stadium to the public, which seemed to reflect their confidence. Most clubs practise behind closed doors – apart from the 15-minute window they have to grant to the media – and around 100 Ajax supporters turned up to watch. “It’s become a tradition for us,” Ten Hag added. “It gives you a good vibe with your fans.”