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Tottenham get reserve boost as Llorente and Nkoudou find some form

Published on: 08 December 2017

Mauricio Pochettino admits that Tottenham's domestic form may have dipped from focusing their energy on the Champions League. Craig Burley explains why Tottenham's first-place finish in Group H could have some 'horrendous' repercussions.

It has been a curious six weeks for Tottenham, who finished three points ahead of Real Madrid at the summit of their Champions League group but lie sixth in the top flight -- level with Burnley.

Mauricio Pochettino's side have struggled to redress the balance in the last fortnight. Since beating Borussia Dortmund 2-1 and securing top spot in Group H, they have only won one out of four games -- and that was in Wednesday's meaningless tie against Apoel Nicosia.

They have taken just two points from a possible nine in the more important Premier League clashes with West Brom, Leicester and Watford. And it would be a crying shame if, having now shown they can compete with the continent's giants, Spurs failed to qualify for next year's Champions League. Nonetheless it is a danger.

Encouragingly, Pochettino's sides have clicked into gear in December in each of the last two seasons. However, Spurs were playing at White Hart Lane last term and had the best home record in the league, taking 53 points from a possible 57. At the moment, Tottenham's form at Wembley is the eighth-best in the top flight.

Two weeks ago, after overcoming Dortmund, the north Londoners returned to league action with a disappointing 1-1 draw with West Brom under the arch. Now, after beating Apoel, they must avoid a similar fate when Stoke visit on Saturday, followed by Brighton on Wednesday.

Scoring more than one goal would be a good start -- something Spurs have failed to do against Burnley (1-1), Swansea (0-0), Bournemouth (1-0), Crystal Palace (1-0) or West Brom (1-1) at Wembley.

While Wednesday's victory over Group H's basement boys was a meaningless result, Pochettino will be heartened by some of his players' attacking contributions.

Serge Aurier set up the opener from right-back, while Fernando Llorente and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou both scored their first goals for the club, and Heung-Min Son was on target again.

With four goals in five starts, Son was always set to be a key member of the starting XI against Stoke anyway, and he could have the added motivation of facing his best friend Kevin Wimmer. But Nkoudou and Llorente may also have enhanced their cases for greater involvement at the weekend, if necessary, having previously offered little evidence that they could be relied upon to make an impact.

When the challenge is to find a way past defensive visitors, it is no bad thing to have a tricky winger and a 6-foot-3 forward feeling rejuvenated and more confident. Pochettino stated last month that Tottenham need more trickery in tight areas to unlock well-organised defences, adding that the returning Erik Lamela can help in that regard. So can Nkoudou, potentially.

Of course, one deflected goal against average opposition does not make the 22-year-old the solution to all of Spurs' problems against mid-table or bottom-half teams at Wembley. Yet, having been omitted from the matchday squad for the last four league games, he may just be worth a spot on the bench against Stoke.

Llorente will have some confidence and can make an impact.

Nkoudou would perhaps be more effective when space is limited than Moussa Sissoko, whose pace and power is more useful over longer distances. If nothing else, he is unpredictable -- and there is something to be said for that, if Plan A and Plan B have failed and time is running out.

The youngster might run the ball out of play, but he also has the footwork, pace and direct approach that worries defenders who would probably rather be facing a series of high balls aimed towards Llorente in the closing stages.

For his own part, the Spaniard needed his strike against Apoel, and it will have lifted a weight from his shoulders after 16 goalless appearances. Rather than being a powerful figure in the box, he has often just looked immobile, ill-suited to Spurs' dynamic ideals -- and he has missed big chances, most notably at Leicester last week when he was four yards out.

Apoel allowed Llorente to play to his strengths, giving him the space to dominate defenders on the ground and in the air. Llorente took his goal well after controlling Aurier's low cross immaculately with his back to goal, and he set up Son's strike with a quick one-two on the edge of the box.

Stoke will not be so accommodating but these were positive contributions in the very situations where Spurs will hope to hurt their weekend opposition -- with low crosses and shots from the edge of the box.

Tottenham's substitutes rarely make enough of an impact. The absence of game-changing reserves remains a long-running issue and Lamela's assist for Harry Kane at Leicester, moments after his introduction, was the exception rather than the rule.

But, if Pochettino turns to Llorente and/or Nkoudou in the second half on Saturday, he and the home fans might feel a bit more hopeful after witnessing the pair's encouraging outings against Apoel.

Ben is ESPN FC's Tottenham blogger. Follow on Twitter: @BenPearceSpurs.


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