Mauricio Pochettino watched last season’s Champions League draw in view of the cameras but afterwards he wished he had stayed hidden in his office.
The Tottenham manager’s wry smile, which he later described as “unguarded”, betrayed his delight at a group containing Monaco, Bayer Leverkusen and CSKA Moscow, but he was made to look complacent as Spurs fell at the first hurdle and into the Europa League.
A year later, Pochettino did not make the same mistake and he was nowhere to be seen as Spurs were drawn in a dangerous-looking group with holders Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and APOEL Nicosia.
“The season before, we were watching the draw and we thought: ‘Oh Monaco, Leverkusen and CSKA. We have a chance to go to the next stage.’ Then this [year’s] draw we thought: ‘OK we are going to compete … and we say nothing’. And look now — we are first, top of the table,” Pochettino said on Tuesday, as Spurs were confirmed as group winners with a game to spare after a 2-1 win in Dortmund.
Learning from last season’s mistakes has been the key to Tottenham’s unexpected form in the Champions League and even before they had beaten Dortmund for a second time, Pochettino hailed their progress.
“At the same period, one year ago, we were in Monaco, and after that game we were out of the Champions League. Now we are in the next stage. The team has stepped-up,” he said on Monday.
Pochettino struggled to put a finger on last season’s Champions League failure, insisting it was “more mental than physical or tactical”, but he knew where they needed to improve. He felt his players were too passive in the final third and not clinical enough in front of goal (they scored just once from open play in the four matches against Monaco and Leverkusen) and this time it has been different.