Pochettino well on the road to being compared with Pep
When Mauricio Pochettino shows up on Pep Guardiola's patch today, there will be a new feeling between the two men. No longer on either side of Barcelona's David and Goliath dynamic, with no great imbalance and no inferiority complex.
Pochettino will not arrive at the Etihad Stadium as a plucky upstart, as he did at the Nou Camp with Espanyol. He will arrive as an equal, a threat, not just to City over 90 minutes but to their hopes of playing Champions League football next season.
This weekend, in this relationship, Pochettino has the upper hand. Spurs are three points ahead of City in the table and are playing far, far better. Pochettino has won his last three matches against City, including October's 2-0 win at White Hart Lane. It would be no surprise to see Spurs overturn City again today.
It was a surprise the first time Pochettino's team beat Guardiola's. It was February 2009, he had just taken over Espanyol and their trip to the Nou Camp was hailed as 'fighting King Kong with a teaspoon'. But Pochettino told his players they had to believe that they could win and they did, 2-1.
"Did it feel impossible? No," Pochettino recalled this week. "We were on the bottom, and they were on the top. They had Lionel Messi, Thierry Henry, Andres Iniesta and Xavi. We had 11 youngsters from the academy. But one thing was important: belief. We believed."
That belief was not enough to bridge the gap between the two sides. There is a very clear hierarchy in that city and the two clubs existed at opposite ends of it.
The relationship between City and Spurs is different. Pochettino proudly said that his side was traditionally a bigger club. "Historically, Tottenham was bigger than City," he said. "(In terms of) fans, Tottenham is bigger."
But everything changed in 2008 with the Abu Dhabi takeover which, after a few years of close competition, catapulted City ahead of Spurs. Even if it has not been clear on the pitch this season, in a financial sense the two clubs are playing a different game.
"City is a different philosophy," Pochettino said. "Not a different level, but in a completely different way than Tottenham. It is too difficult to measure if there is a gap or not because we are in a completely different world."
Those are the different worlds that City and Tottenham exist in now. That is why City have the most sought-after coach in the world, and Tottenham took their manager from Southampton. Or why City's team cost hundreds of millions of pounds to assemble, and Tottenham's did not.
Some managers just want to win matches but these two are in pursuit of something more. Guardiola touched perfection with Barcelona and nearly did so at Bayern Munich.
But over the last month Spurs have looked closer than ever to getting there, winning six straight in the league. Spurs are further along their path to perfection than City are along theirs. For all the money that has been spent at the Etihad, Guardiola does not have the right players. Pochettino has every piece in place. It may not be enough to take Spurs to the title, but they should have a better swing at it than they did last year.
Winning the league this season would be a remarkable culmination of Pochettino's work at Spurs, his three-year pursuit of perfection. It would also be the start of Pochettino wining major titles.
Since that first league meeting eight years ago, Guardiola has won the lot, over and over and over again. "Guardiola has won 21 titles," Pochettino said, with self-deprecation. "And still me with none. You cannot compare me with him." Maybe not yet, but he arrives today to look Guardiola in the eye.