Whether Tottenham Hotspur win or lose Saturday’s UEFA Champions League final, 24 players, a coaching staff and an entire fanbase will be feeling the emotional weight of having gone through the wringer of the biggest, most important game in all of club soccer, but precious little will have actually changed about where the club goes from there.
When Mauricio Pochettino was appointed to replace Tim Sherwood back in 2014, the objectives on which he would be judged were clear: stabilize the first-team squad after a period of unsettling turnover, and get the club back into the Champions League by the time the new stadium was set to open (whenever that would eventually be). As would become the calling card of Pochettino’s tenure, things moved quicker than expected and he needed just two seasons to get them there, and now it’s increasingly difficult to imagine the Champions League without Tottenham in it (three straight seasons with another on the horizon, and a trip to the final).
In that way — and so many others — Pochettino has normalized success at a club starved of such satisfaction for the longest time, for much of its tortured existence. “Spursy” used to be finding the worst, most painful way to fail; now, it’s facing up to some of the biggest clubs in the world without an ounce of fear and seeing themselves as every bit an equal — it’s the most tangible way in which the team represents its manager. Win or lose, this doesn’t change.
If we’re all presently in agreement that Pochettino has done a masterful job to massage an already-short, then injury-ravaged, squad and guide it (somehow) to this game, that won’t have changed and suddenly become untrue based on the result of 90 (or 120) minutes against. If he was on the shortlist for every managerial vacancy in the world, he’ll still be there after a defeat.
Having endured two straight transfer windows without signing a single player, followed by the season (and three-fourths) away from home that would never end, followed by the injury crisis brought about by the lack of transfer dealings, followed by stoppage-time deficits (or deficits that nearly were) into the final seconds of the quarterfinals and semifinals, Spurs’ season has already gone to the brink of falling apart in that cruelest, most painful way imaginable, only for Pochettino’s men to drag themselves through to the other side as lilywhite heroes time and again. Win or lose, that incredible ride doesn’t get erased.
On the other hand, Spurs upsetting the applecart and knocking off Liverpool — the heavy favorites that they are — wouldn’t change the fact that Pochettino’s project is still just that: a project now ahead of schedule, but still with far to go.
The goal was never to get to this one final, on this one day, in this one season; it was always to set the club up for long-term sustainability, so as to claim their place as one of the Premier League’s elite in the same way we now think of Manchester City and Chelsea, and the way we used to think of Manchester United and Arsenal. Part of those club’s present-day narratives are down to their own hilarious failings, to be sure, but another (not insignificant) part is down to being a dysfunction operation in comparison to what’s been happening at White Hart Lane.
Win or lose on Saturday, none of it changes.
It should be said, in the interest of fairness: Saturday’s showpiece in Madrid does have the feeling of a crossroads moment for the club.
A number key figures could very well move on in the summer. Toby Aldeweireld, who has a $31-million release clause in his contract going forward, and Christian Eriksen, who could be one of any number of stars headed to Real Madrid, are chief among them. Their theoretical departures would, of course,
allow for necessitate a bit of transfer activity to breathe new life into the squad — something Spurs fans desperately crave — but with it would come a sense of tearing down and rebuilding a core group that has traced a trajectory beyond anything once thought possible.
To shed the tags of “bottlers” and “sure, finishing above your rivals is nice, but you still haven’t won a trophy” by winning the Champions League trophy — the trophy — at the expense of Liverpool, and before Man City or Arsenal could do it, would be the cherry on top of the ride of a lifetime. This might be as good as it ever gets for Spurs, which means one or two things has gone horrifically wrong in the future, which makes this present moment mean that much more.