It became clear quite early on that Mauricio Pochettino had made a mistake. Harry Kane had done all he could to be fit for Saturday’s Champions League final, the biggest game of his career to date and Tottenham Hotspur’s recent history, even embarking on his own personal PR offensive to convince his manager, fans, everyone of his fitness. It was all in vain, though.
Some of the post-match narratives have gone over the top. Kane wasn’t the sole reason Spurs lost to Liverpool, but Pochettino’s decision to start his captain and top scorer while only half-fit handed the impetus to the opposition from the start. It set the tone for an insipid performance from the North London side, with only the introduction of Lucas Moura in the second-half lifting them.
Now, this cycle threatens to repeat itself with Kane’s fitness a major talking point ahead of England’s Nations League semi-final against the Netherlands and a potential final against either Portugal or Switzerland. As England captain, the striker would be a major miss, but Gareth Southgate mustn’t make the same mistake Pochettino did. Kane must be on the bench.
This is, after all, England’s best chance of winning a major honour since 1966. Of course, winning the inaugural Nations League, a mishmash of a political play from UEFA, would pale in comparison to lifting the World Cup or even the Euros, but it would certainly banish some of the ghosts that have dogged the English game for generations.
Kane is one of the players, along with the likes of Raheem Sterling and Alli, who epitomises England’s confident, swaggering new generation. He really could change things for the Three Lions, starting with winning the Nations League this summer. But he won’t help England do that while effectively playing on one leg.
Southgate must resist Kane’s insistence that he is fit. The 25-year-old is a highly driven individual and will say whatever is needed to start a big game. There is a sense that Kane oversold his readiness ahead of the Champions League final, not just to the media and supporters, but to Pochettino too.
This individualism has helped Kane become the player he is today. At times, there can be something Cristiano Ronaldo-esque about his self-determination – remember when he swore on his daughter’s life to claim a ghost goal against Stoke City? But such a character in times of weakness requires strong management and this is where Southgate must learn the lesson of what happened to Spurs on Saturday.
What’s more, Kane could use the rest. It’s over a year since he was his usual self, rushing back from injury to make last summer’s World Cup before firing himself straight into a 39-game club season with Tottenham. He shows all the classic signs of a player who needs some time off to find his best form again. Ploughing through another tournament might do even more harm and see Kane’s current issues stretch into another season.
Injury came at the worst time for Kane. This period should have been the most significant of his career to date. An opportunity to underline his status as one of the very best in the European game, both club and international, at this moment. His frustration is understandable given the injury struggles faced at last summer’s World Cup, where he was never truly fit, too.
Instead, Kane has become a hindrance rather than a help to the achievement of his career objectives.
That must hurt, but as England captain the striker mustn’t push the issue too hard if Southgate, unlike Pochettino, decides against starting Kane this week. He must recognise his own shortcomings, particularly after Saturday’s performance in Madrid.
Sticking your best and most prominent player on the bench in such a big match after he’s put in 90 minutes of a Champions League final might seem counterintuitive, but Southgate has been granted a glimpse of what to expect if Kane starts through Pochettino’s Madrid experience. He must make the most of that.