If they are to progress to the knockout rounds of the Champions League, Tottenham Hotspur will most likely need to win away to Barcelona at the Camp Nou on Tuesday (3pm ET).
Barcelona have already qualified, and it is Inter Milan with whom Spurs are now contesting second place. The two teams are tied on seven points apiece, but Spurs have the head-to-head advantage thanks to away goals. They just need to match Inter’s result to progress.
The problem is that Inter host PSV Eindhoven on the final matchday. The Dutch champions have so far picked up just one point, at home to Spurs, have conceded at an average rate of over two goals per match, and lost 1-2 at home to Inter in their first meeting back in October. The likelihood is that Inter will emerge victorious, requiring Spurs to do the same.
That is clearly a fairly daunting task. Barcelona top their domestic soccer league, have won four and drawn one in the group to date and have secured victories to nil (4-0 and 2-0) in both of their home engagements. They also defeated Spurs 4-2 at Wembley, London in October, with Lionel Messi scoring twice and generally running the show in an open, back and forth encounter.
Barcelona are not unbeatable. While they always looked capable of scoring in that match at Wembley, Spurs also had their chances. In La Liga, they have already lost away to Leganes and at home to Real Betis. Both their attack and defence look a bit weaker than they were last season, partially due to their struggle to find an adequate balance in midfield.
That was once the area of the pitch from which Barcelona dominated, with Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets controlling the rhythm and advancing the team forward with a series of pretty patterns designed to draw in opponents and help create space for those in the final third. With Xavi and Iniesta now departed, and Busquets’ lack of outright pace highlighted by a team that is increasingly stretched in transition, those days have passed.
Coach Ernesto Valverde still has a strong squad at his disposal. It is the highest paid in world sports on a per-player basis according to a recent report. Despite that, he doesn’t necessarily have the right personnel to recreate the slick, possession-based soccer of the Pep Guardiola years that many in the Barcelona press and supporter base pine for. He is getting results, but the moment they dry up there will be little goodwill for him to fall back on.
Barcelona comfortably saw off neighbours Espanyol 4-0 in Saturday’s Catalan derby, with Messi scoring two superb free-kicks along the way. Spurs also come into the match in good spirits following a 2-0 win away at Leicester City thanks to goals from Heung-Min Son and Dele Alli.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side took just a single point from their first three fixtures in this season’s Champions League but subsequent victories over PSV Eindhoven and Inter have at least kept their hopes alive coming into the final round of matches. They travel to Barcelona in good form following nine wins in their last 10 matches in all competitions.
They also have players capable of causing Barcelona problems in transition with their pace and directness. Harry Kane will act as an able focal point with runners off him, including the in-form Son, who has scored in three of his last four starts. Spurs overwhelmed Real Madrid with a similar approach in their home victory in last season’s competition and will hope to repeat the trick away to Spain’s other predominant side.
With qualification and their place atop the group both already confirmed, it could also be that Barcelona will elect to rest a few of their regular starters. Luis Suarez would certainly be a prime candidate given his ongoing knee niggles, and others, too, could receive a break.
Those factors suggest it isn’t yet over for Spurs in terms of their Champions League campaign. They might just be capable of securing a valuable victory at the Camp Nou.