Ten Hag and Pochettino clash for first time since epic Champions League semi-final

Premier League face-off between Manchester United and Chelsea will pitch former Ajax and Tottenham managers against each other once more

Then Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino, left, and Ajax coach Erik ten Hag after the 2019 Champions League semi-final. The pair meet again as Chelsea and Manchester United play on Wednesday. Reuters
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The clearest memory is of the tears. On a late spring Amsterdam night, Mauricio Pochettino cried plenty – tears of joy, of relief and of disbelief. But also remembered from the dramatic night he reached his pinnacle as a coach is the moment just before his emotional release, the moment he needed to contain himself.

His Tottenham Hotspur had just snatched, last gasp, a place in a Uefa Champions League final. Pochettino’s players – “my heroes,” he called them – hurtled towards him to celebrate an astonishing comeback at Ajax.

But Pochettino turned away from them to first attend to protocol. He stopped his run on to the pitch and, straight-faced, he embraced the losing coach warmly and sympathetically whispered a word of consolation into Erik ten Hag’s ear. Only then did he let his tears flow.

More than four and half years on from overseeing Spurs’ semi-final victory over Ajax, a tie in which Pochettino’s team were trailing 3-0 on aggregate with a little over half an hour left, he and Ten Hag will confront each other for the first time since.

It seems a long while for two elite managers not to have met again. “It will be good to see him,” said Pochettino ahead of Chelsea’s visit to Ten Hag’s Manchester United. “After that semi, we have not had the pleasure.”

The reunion features the club in seventh place in the Premier League against a Chelsea in 10th, far lower placings than either boss would regard as meeting expectation.

If that wild night in the Netherlands, where Lucas Moura completed his hat-trick in the seventh minute of injury time and, with that goal, steered Pochettino’s Spurs into the only European Cup final of their history, remains a landmark for the managers involved, they would equally both prefer if fewer games in their current jobs were as rollercoaster as they are proving.

For Ten Hag, almost every midweek outing these days is an anxious see-saw. A week ago, he had his nerves shredded in much the way they were on May 8, 2019, in Amsterdam.

Two goals up at Galatasaray, United needed merely to hold out for half an hour plus injury time to keep Champions League progress in their own hands. But Galatasaray’s Hakim Ziyech, a member of Ten Hag’s Ajax 2019 side, then found a second way of beating Andre Onana, his former Ajax teammate, with a direct free-kick and it finished 3-3.

That all means, going into next week’s final group matches, United must hope the Turkish club and Copenhagen draw while at the same time United must beat Bayern Munich to sneak from bottom of Group A into second place.

They look back on a trail of regrets. In Copenhagen, United scored three times and had the lead with seven minutes to go. Still they lost. They had the advantage at home to Galatasaray with 19 minutes to go, and Galatasaray won 3-2. They scored three times in Munich and came home with no points.

To watch Pochettino’s first season at Chelsea is to keep the seatbelt just as tightly fastened. The fifth different man to take the club’s managerial reins since the beginning of last season has no European football this season to engage his emotions, but this is not a team to keep him calm domestically.

Saturday’s 3-2 win over Brighton was edgy, with the added suspense of a red card for Chelsea’s Conor Gallagher immediately after half-time. It followed successive matches in which Chelsea have conceded four times, the breathtaking draw with Manchester City and the chastening 4-1 loss to Newcastle United. Just before that, they put four past Pochettino’s old club, Spurs.

“Thank you, football,” declared Pochettino, having dried away the tears in Amsterdam, hugged his players one and by one, and showed off to a worldwide audience the close bonds between manager and a squad full of young footballers. Spurs would be beaten by Liverpool in that European Cup final, but Pochettino had elevated the club and his own reputation.

Paris Saint-Germain came calling for him, and although his stint there brought domestic trophies, the experience left him a little cold.

The job at Chelsea, with their raft of players in their early 20s, many signed within the last 12 months, seems to have re-animated Pochettino, although the frustrations have matched the exhilarations.

He still has to check his emotions, as he acknowledged yesterday, apologising for sounding too critical of his players – “it’s about showing more character” he had said – after the loss to Newcastle.

“I was tired after the game,” he explained, “and I didn’t understand the [media] questions.”

A little warily, he duly deflected any questions about Ten Hag’s challenges at United: “We are all in a similar level, with different situations.”

And, Pochettino added of the manager whose dream was broken so cruelly in Amsterdam, “he’s a fantastic coach.”

Updated: December 06, 2023, 2:46 AM