Why Tottenham coach Mauricio Pochettino wants nothing more than to beat ‘enemy’ Barcelona

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From a purely professional point of view it’s obvious that Mauricio Pochettino would delight in taking a famous win against FC Barcelona at Wembley on Wednesday. Beating a league champion with the best player in the world in their ranks is always an appetising prospect for a competitive elite coach like the Argentine.

But the Spurs manager’s desire to do something big this week goes well beyond the good it would do their position in Champions League Group B. It’s personal, and he would love nothing more than to get one over on a club he grew to detest as an Espanyol icon – a sentiment he has been more than happy to express in the years since.

“My sporting enemy,” was the term the manager used to describe Barça when asked about the fixture by Tottenham’s press department in August. The year before he claimed he’d “rather go back to work on my farm in Argentina” than coach the old enemy, adding “I’m an Espanyol fan. I love Espanyol.”

Nor were there illusions of friendliness when he spoke of Barcelona icon Xavi in April 2017, branding him as – you’ve guessed it – “my enemy” and claiming the Catalan wanted “to destroy our focus on winning because he hates me” by speaking about Dele Alli in an interview.

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Pochettino then recalled in noteworthy detail an incident from a 2009 Barcelona derby, in which he claims Xavi simulated to win a penalty: “He cheated the referee. He fell down, it wasn’t a penalty, but Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored for Barcelona and they won the game. No one touched him and everyone in the media was saying no, no trust me – it was a penalty. Come on. It goes from lie to lie.”

To be clear then, Pochettino hasn’t forgotten any of the heated encounters between his beloved Espanyol and their bigger, richer, more powerful city neighbours. Far from it.

As a player. he wore the Espanyol shirt for ten seasons in two different periods. In the first, the defender was part of the Blanciblaus team that ended a 60-year wait for a major trophy, winning the Copa del Rey in 2000 in a year when Louis van Gaal’s Barcelona came up short in both the league and Champions League. Proof that there was more than one side in the Catalan capital capable of winning silverware – at least that year.

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His second period was more bittersweet. The veteran returned in the twilight of his career and soon helped Espanyol go from relegation battlers to finishing fifth in La Liga – only missing out on a Champions League spot by a solitary point. But the excellent year for the club of his heart came with poor timing, coinciding with the coming of age of Frank Rijkaard’s brilliant Barcelona team who dazzled Spain through Ronaldinho, Samuel Eto’o and co, and dominated the headlines.

The limelight proved similarly difficult to grab the following season. In 2006 Espanyol pulled off the by their standards remarkable feat of winning the Copa del Rey for the second time in six years, but Barcelona’s league title and Champions League double sealed a few weeks later (the Blaugrana’s first European Cup since 1994) meant the spotlight was well and truly stolen. Still the underdogs, even when winning trophies.

He will be desperate to laugh at Barça’s expense once again this Wednesday. Not just for Spurs, but for Espanyol.


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