On Tuesday in the San Siro, one team looked like it had not played in the Champions League for seven years. And it wasn’t Inter Milan. Tottenham Hotspur’s slump is now beginning to resemble a crisis.
With Barcelona in the same group and taking apart PSV Eindhoven with Lionel Messi in fullest form, the Europa League in February already beckons for Mauricio Pochettino. A gilded reputation is taking a pounding.
On their flight back from Italy after being sunk by a winner from Matías Vecino, the Spurs contingent were perhaps able to catch a bit of Liverpool’s defeat of Paris Saint-Germain maintaining a perfect record from the start of the season.
For most of the game, the French giants, with Neymar on the margins, were made to look the vanity project they remain.
Kylian Mbappe struck an equaliser that owed plenty to Mohamed Salah’s lapse of concentration, but Liverpool still found the impetus from which substitute Roberto Firmino scored the winner.
Like Salah, perhaps not yet fully recovered from rushing back from his shoulder injury to play at the World Cup for Egypt, Tottenham look weary of both mind and body.
It has been the pattern of successive defeats to Watford, Liverpool and now Inter. The Italian team’s goals were late in arriving but they had been coming, the second coming from a familiar failing at set pieces.
And as he blundered in the early evening Italian sun, Harry Kane far more resembled Vincent Janssen, his goal-shy understudy, than the player whose rise has inspired his club under Pochettino.
A young man whose ambition reaches to the very heights of the world game was unable to come close to the impact Gareth Bale made on Spurs’ last visit to Inter.
That 2010 night, the Welshman scored a hat-trick in a 4-3 defeat, and followed up in the return match with a performance that all but killed off the top-level career of Inter full-back Maicon.
That Kane, Bale’s heir as the king of White Hart Lane, is struggling is now not really open to much debate, despite pre-match protestations to the contrary. He is forced to carry a huge burden at a time he so badly needs a rest.
Being rushed back in March from an ankle injury looks ever more like a false move as he lumbers around.
The decisiveness of Kane at full flow was lacking in the first-half chance that Samir Handanovic was allowed to smother.
Where Liverpool could call on Daniel Sturridge to step up and score while Roberto Firmino rested on the bench before his last-minute intervention, Kane bluntly ploughed his furrow, while Heung-min Son, only just back from escaping national service by winning Asian Games gold to follow up playing in the World Cup, is short of his usual buzz.
Sturridge – and then Firmino when he came on as a sub – were flanked by the goalscoring quality of Sadio Mane and Mohamed Salah. Alongside Kane and Son was Erik Lamela, not exactly known for his striking prowess and employed by a Pochettino as a workhorse.
The key difference between Liverpool and Tottenham, two clubs who play a similarly energetic pressing game, whose managers share a similar, holistic but ruthless approach to team-building is the willingness of the clubs’ owners to spend cash on their team.
‘Tottenham’s blank transfer business of the summer made them the first club to do so since meltdown-era Leeds bought nobody in the summer of 2003.
Leeds, the damned United, ended up relegated at the end of that season, and while nobody could expect Tottenham to suffer such a fall, there is a distinctly real prospect that their frugality drops them down from Champions League level to the Europa League, both in this season and next; this season’s top four picture is highly congested.
The comparative subs’ bench of last season’s third and fourth-placed teams is hugely instructive.
Pochettino brought on Lucas Moura and Harry Winks, one still yet to establish himself, the other back from long-term injury, and Danny Rose, still short of zip after his own injuries, brought on at the death.
Fernando Llorente, left on the bench, is 33, and has not proved to be up to stepping in for Kane.
As well as Firmino, Liverpool were able to bring on Xherdan Shaqiri for Salah, and even give Fabinho, a £43.7m summer signing, a debut.
And while James Milner continues to play out of his skin in midfield, Jurgen Klopp could leave Naby Keita, a £53m signing Liverpool waited a year for, on the bench.
Pochettino can only fantasise about such riches, at a club left in the limbo by the worryingly spiralling costs of a new White Hart Lane for which the opening date remains a mystery.
While Liverpool have freshened up, augmented a team that reached last season’s Champions League final, Tottenham now looks like a club in imminent danger of stagnation.