At Anfield, the re-examination of the Champions League finalists is renewed

After the indifferent start that Tottenham Hotspur have made to this season, the players might have felt that they owed it to their boss, Mauricio Pochettino, to make amends for jeopardising his job.

Thrashing Red Star Belgrade 5-0 in the Champions League on Tuesday could be viewed as a decent shot at redemption after that shocking 7-2 aberration against Bayern Munich in the same stadium at the start of October. But anyone could see that Red Star are a pale imitation of the great side they once had before the break up of Yugoslavia.

And three wins from nine Premier League games this season tell us that the Spurs are also not what they were; not what Pochettino has built on their training ground these past five seasons.

Some players think they are underpaid compared to the £200,000 (S$349,700) that Harry Kane is reportedly now getting.

Christian Eriksen has brooded and, when selected, performed like a shallow version of his marvellously talented self since the summer move he pined for to Real Madrid failed to materialise. The rumours persist, indeed he is said to be considering an alternative move to Juventus if Madrid do not sign him.

Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen haven't looked the same secure defenders they did before their contract negotiations broke down. Son Heung-min hasn't run like the work devil he resembled before - but that might have more to do with his country, South Korea, extracting every spare ounce of energy and making him the air-mile king of all soccer players this year, last year, and every year on national team duties.

And, with captain Hugo Lloris hors de combat with a dislocated elbow, Dele Alli down on confidence and match fitness after hamstring injury, and the new signings Tanguy Ndombele, Ryan Sessegnon, and Giovani Lo Celso yet to get up to the speed and tenacity of coach Pochettino's system, the standards have slipped considerably.

 
 

Of course, reaching the last Champions League final but losing that game 2-0 to Liverpool took a toll on team morale. "The final is all or nothing," said Pochettino this weekend. "And it was nothing in the end. To be second for us, because we are so competitive in football, is nothing. The players and staff felt empty after the game."

But the seasons are relentless. Liverpool won that final, yet they too are in recovery after chasing down Manchester City over the longest, hardest, most incredible two-horse race for the English title last season, and being pipped by one point.

In truth, Liverpool have not quite looked as vibrant, as willing to run that extra mile against all-comers, this season as last. Yet nine tenths of Liverpool's effort has been an incredible showing so far, with eight consecutive EPL wins until that drawn game against Manchester United at Old Trafford last Sunday.

Now, as they meet Tottenham again at Anfield on Sunday night, the re-examination of the Champions League finalists is renewed.

Both in mid-week despatched weak opposition despite fielding weakened sides themselves. For sure, King Harry and Son both scored twice, Ndombele began to show his athleticism in midfield and Erik Lamela showed that if Eriksen's heart and soul are not what Tottenham require, then Lamela wants it more.

That said, the full Spurs squad, led by Kane in Lloris' absence, took their manager to dinner at Novikov, a posh restaurant in London's West End on Thursday evening. It was a morale-building gesture, but hardly a secret one. The players arrived like fashionistas in their slashed jeans and their finest jackets, and Poch said it was nice of them to invite the staff.

"A bonding dinner can help us to perform and fight," Pochettino said. "It doesn't mean we will go to Anfield and beat them 5-0 because we were all together in a nice restaurant."

Five-nil would be stretching credulity. Liverpool, with Roberto Firmino playing in the form of his life, have not lost at Anfield since April 2017 - a run of 44 games, 34 wins, 10 draws and no defeat, with 115 goals scored and 23 conceded.

Yet the Spurs of last season, trusting one another and confident to the point of cockiness, were the last team to really threaten the Reds on their home turf. Last March in the league, Tottenham came from a goal down to equalise, and then to dominate Liverpool until a lucky stroke, an own goal deflected off Alderweireld in injury time, scuppered Tottenham.

Sunday night could be a feast for someone, red or white.