Beating Dortmund can give Tottenham season lift-off in Champions League
Tottenham's Champions League campaign gets underway against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley on Wednesday and on paper, the match holds the key to their hopes of qualification for the knockout rounds. If the lack of a European giant in last season's group was a disappointment, Spurs face two this year, with holders Real Madrid joining Wednesday's opponents Dortmund. Cypriot champions APOEL Nicosia make up a fiendish group.
Real are favourites to finish first -- and also win the competition for a third consecutive season -- while APOEL are expected to be bottom, leaving Spurs and Dortmund to battle for second place.
"To start well in the competition and get three points will be key to the future. In theory, Real Madrid [will be] first and Dortmund, Tottenham and APOEL will compete for second," admitted manager Mauricio Pochettino, who described the match as "like a final" for Tottenham.
For Spurs, the game will also set the tone for the rest of the competition, something Pochettino alluded to on Tuesday. Last year, their group would not have looked out of place in the Europa League but they were beaten 2-1 by Monaco in the opening match, their first at Wembley, and never recovered, losing to Bayer Leverkusen at the national stadium before slipping to another defeat in Monaco.
"Last season, after the first game against Monaco, it was difficult to change the dynamic," Pochettino said. "We know that the first game is so important, it will be tough because Dortmund is a great team."
It would be even harder for Tottenham to recover from another bad start this year -- particularly with the Wembley hoodoo hanging over the club and a doubleheader against Real to come in autumn -- and a defeat on Wednesday could leave Spurs unable to qualify by the time they travel to Germany in late November. Spurs will expect the two matches to be closer than their 5-1 defeat on aggregate to Dortmund in the Europa League round of 16 in March 2016, when Pochettino's thin squad was exposed after he played a second string in both legs.
Another failure in the Champions League would not be catastrophic but Spurs have ambitions to join Real and Dortmund in the European elite, and Harry Kane has suggested that the players will be using this season's Champions League campaign as a barometer of the club's progress under Pochettino.
"We've got to test ourselves against the best if we want to be one of the top teams in Europe," Kane said. "You've got to see where you are. We have to prove it. We're not there yet."
Given the importance of the match, the timing is not ideal for Spurs. Pochettino's team are like a train, who tend to start with reluctant creaks and jerks before building-up a head of steam in late autumn. Saturday's 3-0 win against an abject Everton has kickstarted their Premier League campaign, but they are still without a win at Wembley this season and Dortmund, who are top of the Bundesliga and unbeaten after three matches, will not do them any favours.
Dele Alli will serve the first of a three-match suspension for his straight red card in last season's Europa League match against KAA Gent, and his absence is a significant blow. Tottenham's biggest problem in last season's Champions League -- and at Wembley in general -- has been a failure to convert their chances, as Pochettino admitted again on Tuesday. "We [needed] to be in front of the goal a little bit more clinical," he said.
Without Alli, Spurs are missing a player who scored 23 goals in all competitions last season, including in the Champions League against CSKA Moscow, and his absence will increase the burden on Kane, who broke his duck for the season with a double at Goodison Park on Saturday.
There are, however, reasons to be optimistic. Dortmund will be missing at least four players, including captain Marcel Schmelzer, while Marc Bartra and Andre Schurrle are among the doubts. Even without Alli and injured trio Victor Wanyama, Danny Rose and Erik Lamela, Spurs can have far more faith in their squad than they did a fortnight ago, and certainly more than they did the last time they played the Germans.
Pochettino's bench at Everton was as strong as it has ever been, boasting Mousa Dembele, Harry Winks and new signings Fernando Llorente and Serge Aurier, and the deadline day arrivals will provide valuable experience of playing in the competition.
And just as a defeat would be hugely damaging, a win would not only be a spectacular way to lift the Wembley curse, it would set up Spurs to announce themselves as a force in Europe, just as they have done in the Premier League.
"We want to be known as one of the best teams in Europe and the only way to do that is to play in the Champions League," said Kane. "It will definitely give us confidence if we go out and get results against teams like Dortmund. That will put us in good stead going forward and will give us really high confidence.
"That's what we've got to try and do -- take the positive energy that Wembley's going to produce tomorrow and use it to our advantage. If we can get through the group then there's no reason why we can't go quite far in the competition."
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.