Jan Vertonghen

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Davinson delights Pochettino, who predicts “massive” strides

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It’s still very early days for Davinson Sanchez as a Tottenham Hotspur player, but the early returns are extremely positive as the Colombian center back has featured in 14 of the club’s 17 games in the Premier League and UEFA Champions League this season.

[ MORE: Spurs beat Dortmund again to win group with Real Madrid ]

What’s more encouraging than Sanchez’s initial performances? The 21-year-old’s “massive” room for improvement and the expectation he’ll one day soon be one of the world’s best defenders, according to manager Mauricio Pochettino.

After signing for Spurs in August, Sanchez went straight into Pochettino’s starting lineup, slotted in between stalwarts Toby Aldeweireld and Jan Vertonghen, who together last season led the defense with the PL’s best record (26 goals conceded in 38 games), as part of a back-three. Sanchez has taken to Tottenham like a duck to water, in Pochettino’s estimation — quotes from ESPN FC:

“You saw against against Dortmund how many times he was with [Pierre-Emerick] Aubameyang one-versus-one. How many central defenders can play one-versus-one and escape and go, be tight and press? If you run, I run because I am so confident when running. I think not many center backs in the world can do this.

“Or against Swansea against Tammy Abraham: how many times he was one vs. one and the ball was behind him, he was on the halfway line and running was not a problem? And against Cristiano Ronaldo, too?”

“We expect more from him, but I am so happy with him. He is doing well, very well. He’s only 21 years old, but he shows more maturity [than that], and he’s so aggressive when he’s marking, his concentration [is good] and then with the ball he’s good, but I think he can improve.

“There is massive scope to improve potentially, it’s massive for him. In only a few months, he’s showing he’s doing a fantastic job for us. [He can improve in] every single aspect, tactic, physical condition, technique.

“We need with him one and a half months or two months preseason every day, and then I’m sure he’s going to show a different level. I think he’s one of the best today, but has potential to improve a lot more.

“Because he’s so clever, and he’s very humble, and he’s very open to learn, he’s a player when you tell something his reaction is to be open, and be critical with himself, and that is a massive skill from a player, when he’s so open to improve, and then the conditions he has are amazing to be one of the best center halves in the world.”

To state the completely obvious, Pochettino was wise to utilize Aldeweireld and Vertonghen as training wheels for Sanchez, if you will, upon his arrival. His athleticism and pace make him 1) the ideal complement to a pair of players who read the game so well; and, 2) perfectly positioned to operate as the last-man, emergency defender on the rare occasion either Belgian is breached.

[ MORE: Liverpool host Chelsea in massive top-four clash ]

For the first time all season, Sanchez started out wide in Alderweireld’s absence (hamstring) against Arsenal last weekend, and for the first time since his arrival, he appeared a flawed — which is to say, human — defender. To his credit, Sanchez gave a quality account of himself on the whole, and finished the game much stronger than he’d started.

No one was more aware of this than Pochettino, though, as he slid Eric Dier into Aldeweireld’s spot for Tuesday’s Champions League triumph over Borusia Dortmund, again deploying Sanchez in the middle. With Aldeweireld expected to miss a couple more weeks at minimum, the Tottenham teamsheet should routinely read Vertonghen-Sanchez-Dier from left to right until he returns.

UEFA WCQ: France, Portugal one win away; Netherlands all but eliminated

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A roundup of Saturday’s penultimate matchday of 2018 World Cup qualifying action from all around Europe…

[ MORE: USMNT routs Panama to boost WC dreams in a big way ]

Bulgaria 0-1 France

With one game left to play, France remain one point clear of Sweden in Group A following a nervy 1-0 victory away to Bularia on Saturday. Blaise Matuidi scored the game’s only goal, in the 3rd minute, as Didier Deschamps’ side clinched a top-two finish in the group, guaranteeing at minimum a place in the qualification playoffs.

Chelsea midfielder N'Golo Kante was subbed off with an apparent hamstring injury in the 34th minute.

A victory over Belarus on Tuesday would see France qualify straight through to next summer’s tournament in Russia. Should Les Bleus slip up, Sweden, who boast a massively superior goal differential (+19 to +11) would need a superior result against the Netherlands to overtake them.

Belarus 1-3 Netherlands

Despite their own victory over Belarus, the combination of Sweden’s 8-0 victory over Luxembourg and France’s victory over Bulgaria, means the Dutch have been all but officially eliminated from contention to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Needing to overturn to make up three points and 12 goals in the goal-differential column in their finale against Sweden, the Oranje will miss a second straight major international tournament (EURO 2016).

The Netherlands finished as runners-up at the 2010 World Cup and third-place finishers in 2014.

Bosnia and Herzegovina 3-4 Belgium

Belgium clinched their place in Russia during the last international break, turning the rest of their Group H schedule into a chance to finely tune themselves and perhaps spoil the dreams of others. Saturday’s seven-goal thriller against Bosnia went a long way toward doing just that, as the home side’s defeat left the door wide for Greece to leapfrog their way into second place by two points. Unfortunately for the Bosnians, that’s exactly what happened after Greece won away to Cyprus, 2-1.

Jan Vertonghen marked his record-tying 96th cap with a goal in the 68th minute. While it looked set to be the game-winning goal, the Red Devils conceded an equalizer eight minutes from full-time, necessitating an 84th-minute winner from Yannick Carrasco to go nine points clear atop the group.

Thomas Meunier fired the visitors ahead in the 4th minute, only to be pegged back by Philadelphia Union midfielder Haris Medunjanin right on the half-hour mark. Nine minutes later, Edin Visca made it 2-1 to the hosts. That lead would remain intact until the 59th minute, when Michy Batshuayi equalized and set up the frantic final 30 minutes.

Manchester United midfielder Marouane Fellaini picked up an injury, believed to be knee ligament damage, in the 29th minute. Initial reports have speculated he could be out for a number of weeks.

Andorra 0-2 Portugal

Portugal took care of business away to Andorra, thanks to Cristiano Ronaldo’s 79th international goal and the game-winner in the 63rd minute, but the reigning European champions remain second in Group B, three points back of Switzerland, though they possess an insurmountable goal-differential advantage (+26 to +18). As fate would have it, the second-place side hosts the leaders on Tuesday, needing three points to qualify automatically.

Andre Silva completed the scoring four minutes from full-time.

Switzerland 5-2 Hungary

Steven Zuber scored twice in Switzerland’s 5-2 rout of Hungary, to go with individual tallies from Granit Xhaka, Fabian Frei and Stephan Lichtsteiner.

Elsewhere in UEFA WCQ

Group A

Sweden 8-0 Luxembourg

Group B

Faroe Islands 0-0 Latvia

Group H

Gibraltar 0-6 Estonia
Cyprus 1-2 Greece

Vertonghen: “We need to level up” like rest of PL contenders

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Tottenham put up a heck of a title fight in 2016/17 as the club attempted to chase down Premier League champions Chelsea, but Spurs have been inactive this summer as Mauricio Pochettino‘s group gears up for next month.

[ MORE: Striker Morata signs five-year contract with Chelsea ]

The London side finished second in the PL a season ago — a record-high for the club during the modern Premier League Era.

[ VIDEO: History of the North London Derby ]

However, Pochettino and Co. have made no moves in the transfer market this summer, while its competitors — Chelsea, Manchester United, etc. — have all made significant roster additions to bolster their lineups.

Defender Jan Vertonghen says that Spurs must compete with the rest of the PL’s elite in the transfer market if the club is to finally realize its goal of finishing atop England’s top flight.

“The way our rivals are strengthening this season, we need to be aware of that and we need to level up as well,” Vertonghen told ESPN FC.

“I’m not saying with new players, but we need to take our levels up and I think we can. I’m the oldest outfield player in the team and I feel very fit. The younger guys can improve even more. It can definitely be our year and we want it to be our year.

“Luckily we almost kept everyone from this year. Obviously the window is not closed yet but if we can keep these guys, we can do the same thing again. It’ll be a bit harder because we play at Wembley! [The pitch] is a lot bigger but the training pitches have already been adapted.

While Spurs certainly benefit from having one of the strongest young groups of players in England, the club’s lack of spending is a bit concerning, especially after its recent loss of Kyle Walker — who joined Manchester City for a record fee.

Watch Live: Tottenham Hotspur vs. Stoke City (Lineups, Stream)

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The penultimate Premier League match of the weekend pits Stoke City against third-place Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane on Sunday (Watch live at 8:30 a.m. EDT on NBCSN and online via NBCSports.com).

Jan Vertonghen is back alongside Toby Alderweireld in the heart of Spurs’ back line, and it’s no surprise that PL Download stars Harry Kane and Hugo Lloris also start.

Geoff Cameron‘s four-month layoff appears to be reaching its end, as the USMNT back is on the subs bench for Stoke City. He last played on Oct. 22.

LINEUPS

Tottenham Hotspur: Lloris, Walker, Dier, Alderweireld, Vertonghen, Davies, Wanyama, Dembele, Eriksen, Alli, Kane. Subs: Vorm, Trippier, Wimmer, Winks, Sissoko, Son, Janssen.

Stoke City: Grant; Bardsley, Shawcross, Martins Indi, Pieters; Whelan, Adam; Arnautovic, Allen, Ramadan; Crouch. Subs: Given; Muniesa, Berahino, Afellay, Diouf, Cameron, Imbula.

Vertonghen to miss 2 months with ankle ligament damage

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Jan Vertronghen is expected to miss at least two months while recovering from ankle ligament damage, and it couldn’t have come at a worse time, with Tottenham Hotspur currently second in the Premier League, seven points back of leaders Chelsea.

[ FOLLOW: All of PST’s PL coverage ]

Vertonghen suffered the injury in the 65th minute of Saturday’s 4-0 thrashing of West Bromwich Albion, when he went full-stretch to clear the ball along the sideline before landing on the outside of his left foot, causing the ankle to roll violently. The 29-year-old Belgian international was in clear, visible agony as he sat on the field at White Hart Lane and eventually limped down the tunnel.

The Guardian described the injury as “a tear lying between grades two and three, damage which had left Vertonghen in tears as he departed the turf at White Hart Lane and would normally rule him out at the very least until mid-March.”

[ MORE: PL Power Rankings — Tight at the top… and bottom ]

In the meantime, Kevin Wimmer and Ben Davies will be tasked with filling the void for a Tottenham side which has conceded the fewest goals in the Premier League this season (14 in 21 games). (As a small aside, 19-year-old American center back Cameron Carter-Vickers is likely set for a handful of appearances as well, perhaps in the Europa League round of 32 and FA Cup fourth round, with Wimmer and Davies called upon for additional PL service.)

Wimmer filled in for Vertonghen for nearly three months last season, at the exact same point of the campaign (Jan. 20 through April 2). In Wimmer’s 10 PL starts during that stretch (Vertonghen out with knee ligament damage), Spurs conceded seven goals (seven wins and two draws). The loss of Toby Aldeweireld, for nearly two months back in October of this season, proved a far greater blow (two wins in six PL games), and Spurs should once again manage just fine for as long as Aldeweireld remains healthy alongside Eric Dier, Wimmer and Davies.