Tottenham must keep focus on Arsenal with Juventus in UCL looming
Wednesday night's fourth round FA Cup replay win against Newport County couldn't have gone much better for Tottenham. Mauricio Pochettino was able to make 10 changes from the side that had drawn 2-2 against Liverpool the previous Sunday; Toby Alderweireld, Danny Rose and Harry Winks were given their first starts since returning from injury; and Spurs cruised to a comfortable 2-0 victory without ever really getting out of second gear.
It leaves them in great shape for Saturday's North London derby against Arsenal. It also leaves Pochettino with a bit of a headache, albeit one which the Spurs manager has been longing for all season. He now has a fully fit squad and has to work out his preferred starting XI -- not just for Arsenal but for the crucial Champions league fixture away to Juventus next Tuesday.
Though most of the team will essentially pick itself, the key decision to be made is over Alderweireld. Pochettino might be of two minds whether Alderweireld is ready to play two games in three days and may be planning to hold him back for Juventus, though logic would dictate that if the Belgian international is fit then he should play. His positional sense as right centre-back is generally impeccable -- it's rare that any opposition attacker gets the better of him -- and his aerial presence gives Spurs more options from set pieces.
Besides which, the North London derby is arguably the more important game for Spurs. Not just because of the historic rivalry between the two clubs, but because of their relative positions in the league. A win would put Spurs seven points clear -- effectively eight when goal difference is factored in -- of Arsenal with just 11 league games to play. That would give Arsenal a mountain to climb.
But this game isn't just about Arsenal. It's about Spurs competing to finish in the Champions League places. Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea -- even allowing for the Stamford Bridge side appearing to be in crisis -- all have winnable games. Spurs need to take the three points to maintain the pressure on their rivals. The time to worry about who might or might not be fit for the Juventus tie is after the Arsenal game has been won, not before it.
What must also be of concern to the manager and the fans is the uncertainty over which Tottenham side are going to turn up against Arsenal. Spurs have been far less consistent this season than last. Against Everton and Manchester United, they were ruthless, dominant and looked capable of beating anyone. But in recent games against West Ham, Southampton and Newport County in the first FA Cup tie of the two, Tottenham all too often looked disjointed and off the pace. True, they had been without a few key players, but that can't totally explain the Jekyll-and-Hyde performances.
Sometimes, Spurs are capable of showing both sides of their personality in the same game. In the first half against Liverpool last weekend, they were sluggish and careless, all too often conceding the ball in possession and posing no attacking threat. They went into the changing rooms at halftime lucky to be only a goal down.
Pochettino may have made a few minor tactical tweaks during the break but that didn't fully explain the personality change. His side went from being diffident and second to every 50-50 ball, to completely bossing the game. Though it was the last 10 minutes, with Victor Wanyama's wonder strike, Mohamed Salah's solo effort and the tale of Harry Kane's two penalties that dominated the headlines, there must have been a part of Pochettino that was disappointed in only getting a draw. If his side had played with the same intensity and commitment from the start, Liverpool would have been there for the taking.
Maybe it was a question of belief. Anfield is an intimidating ground to play at and it seemed as if some of the Tottenham players were overawed by the occasion. When they conceded an early goal through Eric Dier's error, their heads went down and it took them until halftime to recover. For the North London derby, Pochettino needs to get his players into the right frame of mind from the start. He needs to get them to believe that they are the better side and that they have nothing to fear.
Not that this will be an easy game. No derby ever is. At the Emirates earlier in the season, an inferior Arsenal side were more psyched up and ready for the game. They pressed hard from the start and Tottenham shrank back into their shells. The game was effectively over by half time as Arsenal raced into a 2-0 lead. This time round it's Spurs who need to do the bossing. They are the side with the talent. If they can only bring themselves to believe this and not succumb to nerves, the three points are there for the taking.
John Crace is one of ESPN FC's Tottenham bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @JohnJCrace.