Mauricio Pochettino’s decision to rest several key players for Tottenham’s Europa League loss at Borussia Dortmund will be tested when his side return to Premier League action at Aston Villa on Sunday.
Pochettino opted to name a weakened team for the last 16 first leg tie in Germany on Thursday, omitting Harry Kane, Erik Lamela, Mousa Dembele and Kyle Walker while Dele Alli was suspended.
The resulting 3-0 defeat prompted criticism of the Tottenham manager, who clearly prioritised the visit to face the Premier League bottom club at Villa Park this weekend when his side could move to within two points of leaders Leicester.
Having been installed by many as favourites to win the title for a first time since 1961, Tottenham’s challenge has faltered in the last two weeks with last weekend’s failure to hold onto the lead against an Arsenal side reduced to 10 men coming on the back of defeat at West Ham.
Pochettino’s side remain in a strong position, but cannot afford to lose more ground, with Leicester due to face struggling Newcastle on Monday, and Tottenham defender Toby Alderweireld admits they must respond positively to the Dortmund loss.
“Everyone is disappointed after Dortmund and it will take a couple of days, but then the focus is on Sunday,” Alderweireld said.
“It’s good to have a game so quickly. Everyone will expect us to win but this will be a difficult game and we have to be tough to beat them.
“We will need to concentrate and play at a high level otherwise it will be difficult.
“We have to be focused and as I said, we have to be at the top of our game because if we lack a little, it will end up being a very difficult game for us.”
– Stark reminder –
The reaction of goalkeeper Hugo Lloris to the midweek defeat confirmed Pochettino’s side had been handed a stark reminder of the progress Tottenham still has to make to compete with Europe’s best.
“After a game like that you feel very far from the top teams in Europe,” Lloris said.
“After the draw we said: ‘OK, great’, because it was a Champions League-style game and we knew it would be an interesting game, to learn for next season.
“But after a game like that there was nothing to learn. You just switch off.”
Villa head into the game on the back of four straight defeats which have left them nine points from safety and on the verge of being condemned to the second tier for the first time since 1988.
Two of the losses were heavy as they went down 6-0 at home to Liverpool and 4-0 at Manchester City last weekend.
Villa’s much-maligned manager Remi Garde has attempted once again to shock his beleaguered players into action by appealing to their character.
“They suffer, everybody suffers, but we are professional,” Garde said.
“We are in a situation where there is no place for weak people or weak characters.
“It’s too easy to complain all the time. It’s the time to take this difficult moment as an opportunity.
“It’s difficult as we have lost heavily in the last four games, but we are still alive and have quality that we have to show on the pitch.”
Garde has delivered a blunt message to players who might be eyeing a close-season exit from Villa in the wake of their seemingly certain relegation.
“I think they are aware when you have a contract, you are linked to the club,” Garde said.
“Everybody has a contract. Everybody will have to respect that.
“This is a not a discussion I have with my players but they are not coming from another planet. They are aware of football rules.” – Agence France-Presse