Thursday night marks the start of Tottenham’s annual foray into the existential wilderness that is the Europa League. Our opponents are FK Qarabag, winners of the Azerbaijan Premier League the past two seasons.
FK Qarabag are from the Nagorno-Karabakh region of the South Caucasus, which is a de facto independent state within Azerbaijan. The Horsemen, which fits rather nicely with Spurs I guess, play their home games in the Azerbaijan capital Baku due to conflict.
For pure existential wonderment, we’ll never beat our Europa League group of two years previously. We faced Anzhi Makhachkala, from Dagestan, but had to play them in Moscow as the region wasn’t safe for visiting teams. We had Moldovan powerhouses Sheriff Tiraspol, who are actually from from Transnistria, a state that is not internationally recognised. And we had Norway’s Tromso, which involved a trip to the Arctic Circle on a winter’s night. Baku may be a five-and-a-half hour flight away, and will be freezing in late November, but at least we can get to Brussels by Eurostar and Monaco is civilised no matter the weather.
Oddly, for the first time in several years, I’m looking forward to the Europa League.
While in previous seasons it has been a distraction and an impediment to our quest for Champions League qualification, in this new age of long-term strategy and minimal realistic hope of gate-crashing the Top Four, it feels like a bonus. More watching Spurs for us fans, and a more game time for Mauricio Pochettino to blood our young team.
It’s a bit like on Football Manager, where the Europa League gives you a bunch of easy games which do not matter but enable you to accelerate the development of all the young studs you are bringing through the academy.
So here are five things to look out for on Thursday night:
THE ERIK LAMELA SHOW: As mentioned previously, I predict Lamela to be a mainstay of the Europa League team. If he performs well, it is a route back into the Premier League team as a starter, and failing that, it is essentially an advert for his talents and he can use the competition to ensure he gets a move away from Spurs. Lamela’s rabona was the highlight of a mediocre Europa League campaign last season, but he is just the sort of unpredictable but exciting player who can make things happen against the mediocre opposition that we will face in the group stages. I imagine he will start in the centre on Thursday, with Townsend on one flank and either Son Heung-min or Nacer Chadli on the other. I’d like to see Alex Pritchard given a start, but it seems unlikely.
HARRY KANE HAMSTRING WATCH: Given he is the only out-and-out striker in the squad, one presumes Harry Kane will start up front. It’s not necessarily a bad shout to give him another run-out while he is looking for a Spurs goal. Kane will get a breather eventually, especially if qualification is looking secure. One assumes, Pochettino will like to use the Europa League to test Son and Clinton N’Jie in the striker role. Son showed his talent in flashes against Sunderland but lasted less that an hour, and N’Jie is not yet match-fit. So until then, we’re praying to the hamstring gods that Kane gets through another 90 minutes.
CENTRAL PERKS: Perhaps the most interesting selection will be in central midfield. One assumes, Eric Dier gets a breather as his midfield protection shouldn’t be needed against such lowly opposition, while Ryan Mason is continuing to recover from the knee injury he picked up against Sunderland. Nabil Bentaleb is out for three or four weeks, and Dembele isn’t yet fit. So it will be a raw central midfield — likely Tom Carroll and Harry Winks. I was surprised that Carroll wasn’t sold in the summer as I find him an underwhelming player, but he has one hell of a chance to impress and prove that he has a future at Spurs. He’ll not only have to control the midfield, he’ll also have to lead with someone as inexperienced as Winks alongside him.
INTRODUCING KEVIN WIMMER: The big Austrian defender hasn’t yet seen any competitive action for Spurs, but this should change Thursday. I’ve not been impressed with the partnership between Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen due to a lack of physicality, but it is early days and Mauricio Pochettino will stick with it for a while. For Wimmer, good performances in the Europa League will secure him status as first choice replacement should injuries or suspensions strike our Belgians, or if the partnership fails to improve. From the pre-season games, he looks big and strong. It will be interesting to see how he does on the ball, and what he is like temperament-wise in a big game. One imagines he partners Federico Fazio, who Spurs failed to sell this summer. Personally, I’d rather see Cameron Carter-Vickers or Milos Veljkovic — Fazio has no future at Spurs, so why waste precious minutes on him?
POCHETTINO PHILOSOPHY WATCH: I was very disappointed by last season’s Europa League campaign. While it provided the basis for Kane to springboard to first-choice striker, and a goal of the season in Lamela’s rabona, Spurs achieved little else. The team struggled mightily against average opposition like Besiktas and Partizan, and too many squad players like Andros Townsend, Benjamin Stambouli and Roberto Soldado failed to take the opportunity these games presented. The performances were listless, and there was no evidence of the Pochettino philosophy in action. This season, I would like to see evidence that the philosophy is taking root beyond mainstays such as Dier, Mason and Kane. It’s not hard to spot — fast, organised football with an intense press and defensive solidity. I’m not too bothered by results — the Europa League is a brutally long competition, and the inability to move Premier League game to Sunday evenings or Mondays leaves the English sides at a disadvantage to teams from Spain and Italy. Spurs may be among the bookmakers favourites, but the chances of victory and a Champions League place feel as remote as, well, Azerbaijan.