Tottenham travel across London on Sunday to take on Championship side Fulham in a match that suddenly feels much more important than it did just days ago.
Were Tottenham to have won against Gent in the Europa League on Thursday, Mauricio Pochettino might feel justified in cruising through this round of the FA Cup.
Only they didn’t win. Indeed, they maybe played their worse match of the season so far as they sunk 1-0 to their lowly opponents.
That loss, in hindsight, might have been telegraphed long ago. Tottenham’s form began suffering when Jan Vertonghen and Danny Rose went down. Add to that Pochettino’s usually reliable, currently healthy starters look burdened by some mental, if not physical, fatigue.
Pochettino, then, had some options for Sunday’s match against Fulham. He could roll out the same strong team he brought to Gent and hope that’s enough to beat the Cottagers. Or get could test the waters of his squad and lean on youngsters and benchwarmers.
He chose the former.
There are changes from the team that lost to Gent. Michel Vorm is in goal instead of Hugo Lloris. Kierian Trippier comes in for Kyle Walker at right-back. Heung-min Son and Christian Eriksen are back in the attack at the expense of Moussa Sissoko and Mousa Dembélé.
It’s Jan Vertonghen’s return to action that is most notable here. The Belgian suffered an ankle injury in January that might have kept him out for weeks. Now, true to Pochettino’s promise earlier in the week, he’s starting once again.
So it is that Fulham will face down essentially the strongest team that Pochettino could muster. Vincent Janssen, Josh Onomah and Kevin Wimmer all make the bench, but they are denied another attempt to prove themselves.
Beyond simple issues of morale and proper rest, this is likely a sign that Pochettino intends to compete in all competitions Tottenham are involved in.
There’s plenty of good reason to do so. With the Premier League title perhaps just out of reach, silverware either in Europe or in the FA Cup would be a nice consolation prize.
First they will need to get through Fulham. Slaviša Jokanović has also elected to do a piecemeal rotation of his strongest team. At their core though they remain the team that have made Craven Cottage a virtual fortress in recent weeks.
This will be a tricky match, but one that Pochettino evidently feels needs to be won. Check back at full time for a match report.