Pochettino v Solskjær: Premier League soap opera could run and run

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The Spurs manager is a target for Manchester United but Daniel Levy would oppose any move with iron fists

David Hytner

It was the moment that enshrined Ole Gunnar Solskjær into Manchester United legend. David Beckham’s corner, Teddy Sheringham’s flick and, well, you know the rest. What has remained a secret until now was that up in the Camp Nou directors’ box – following an outrageous piece of blagging – was Mauricio Pochettino. And when Solskjær did what he did, to win the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich, Pochettino found himself celebrating as crazily as any United fan.

The way the Tottenham manager tells it, he was simply carried along by the emotion of the moment. Pochettino was an Espanyol player at the time and, together with his teammate, Toni Jiménez – who is now the goalkeeper coach at Spurs – he had watched the first half from seats that were not so great. And so he and his partner-in-crime decided to upgrade.

They were on the same level as the VIP area and they hopped from block to block until they got there. Remarkably, they spied two padded seats that were empty, jumped into them and, even more remarkably, they were not moved on.

“We sat, like this,” Pochettino says, making like the meekest of boys. “Then, the second half started and we watched it from there – the presidents’ [area]. When Sheringham scored for 1-1 in the last minute, we said: ‘Wow, amazing game, now injury-time.’ And then when Solskjær scored, we were celebrating. How I shouted for a Manchester United goal was incredible! I don’t know why because in that moment, we were neutral. But the atmosphere was amazing.”

It is a story that resonates particularly loudly because on Sunday at Wembley, Pochettino’s Spurs take on a United team that has been re-energised under the caretaker management of Solskjær. And, of course, there is the small matter of who may be given the United job on a permanent basis in the summer.

Could it yet be Solskjær, who has won his first five matches – albeit against low-ranking opposition – but, perhaps more importantly, has reacquainted United with a sense of adventure and fun? The Spurs game is his first major test. Were he to triumph, it would certainly help his case.

Or could it be Pochettino, whom United and Sir Alex Ferguson have in their sights? Ferguson, now back to health and influence, had advanced Pochettino’s candidacy in 2016, post Louis van Gaal, only for the Glazers to prefer the surer thing of José Mourinho.

Pochettino wears his vanity more appealingly than Mourinho these days and since the Old Trafford sacking of a man that he counts as a friend, he has been cute, playful and frankly mischievous at various times with regard to the stories linking him with United at the end of the season.

It is a soap opera that promises to run and run, although Pochettino played it straight for a change on Friday at his pre-match press conference when he stressed that Premier League points were the only thing on his mind. He looked positively flabbergasted when asked whether his players had joked with him about the United job. “No,” he said. “They are too respectful.”

There has been the temptation to bill the game as Pochettino versus Solskjær, with the winner taking all, but that is not only glib, it is incorrect. It is so for several reasons and the biggest one is a man called Daniel Levy, the Spurs chairman who, if United come calling for Pochettino, will make it unbelievably difficult for them to take him.

There was a time when United would have who they wanted from Spurs – Sheringham, Michael Carrick, Dimitar Berbatov, even if the latter’s move came after tortuous negotiations. Ferguson infamously described the business of dealing with Levy as “more painful than my hip replacement”.

There has since been a shift in the relationship between the clubs and not only because Spurs finished above United in 2014, 2016 and 2017. As Pochettino noted, the economic landscape of the Premier League has shifted, making all of the clubs more financially powerful and able to resist unwanted overtures from the bigger ones.

Levy has long been a nightmare to deal with but now it can be close to impossible. United, for example, wanted to take Eric Dier from Spurs in 2017. There was never any possibility of Levy sanctioning the departure of a player he wanted to keep. “Daniel is, as you know very well, so tough to negotiate with,” Pochettino said. “For different clubs in England to do business with him, it’s so difficult.”

Pochettino, unusually, does not have an agent and he negotiated the new five-year contract he signed last May directly with Levy. Not unusually, he thought that he did a good job.

“For me, if there was one person that was easy to do business with, it was Daniel,” Pochettino said. “I think it was more difficult for him than me because I am the manager and he cannot upset me.”

If United or Real Madrid were to try to take Pochettino in the summer, it is likely that the dynamics of any negotiation between him and Levy would be different. In Levy’s favour would be the length of Pochettino’s contract and, crucially, the absence of a buyout clause in it.

As recent history has shown, Tottenham talent does not get away from Levy without a fight or, in some instances, by playing an ugly game of brinkmanship. Just ask Berbatov. Or Luka Modric and Gareth Bale.

If Pochettino does want a new challenge, he may have to ask himself just how hard he is prepared to push for it. Levy has been here before with some of his players and, although it would be a new experience with a manager, he would approach it with trademark iron fists.

Ferguson knows this better than anyone. He did not try to sign Modric, even though he liked him, because he could not face dealing with Levy again. Pochettino versus Solskjær? There is a third player in the game.

 

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