MAURICIO POCHETTINO does his level best to keep his emotions under wraps.
A former hard-assed Argentinian centre-half and a sweatshop boss who has literally made his players run over hot coals for him in training — the Tottenham manager doesn’t often give much away in public.
But his mask slipped after Saturday’s 4-0 drubbing of Bournemouth when he claimed ‘all of the world wanted to kill’ his team during last season’s title run-in.
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He said: “We expended a lot of energy fighting against Leicester, against Chelsea, against the media. We fought against everyone.”
But it wasn’t Leicester themselves, nor the global media attention on their extraordinary title challenge, which really got under the skin of Pochettino and his players.
It was Chelsea. The way a Chelsea team had tossed off their title defence, got Jose Mourinho the sack and coasted along in mid-table under Guus Hiddink.
The same Chelsea team which then produced such a fire-and-brimstone performance to end Spurs’ title bid in the 2-2 draw at the battle of Stamford Bridge last May.
And it wasn’t just Chelsea’s frenzied display that night.
It was the way several Blues players had openly talked up how much they wanted Leicester to win the title and how desperate they were to deny Spurs.
This trash-talking was regarded in the Tottenham dressing-room as ‘unprecedented’.
It was seen as a group of players branded ‘rats’ by their own supporters, shamelessly playing to the galleries, knowing Chelsea fans loathe Spurs and loved their ex-boss Claudio Ranieri.
This is what Tottenham players will tell you when the mikes are off.
They are desperate to win the Premier League for themselves.
But the fact that they are hunting down Chelsea gives them a true thirst for revenge.
Now that we’ve finally got a title race — with Chelsea’s lead reduced from ten points to four after defeats by Crystal Palace and Manchester United — it promises to be spicy.
Not since the height of the United-Arsenal rivalry have we seen this much spite between two sets of players.
Oh and it’s worth noting that there is one common denominator when Premier League ‘grudge matches’ are authentic — Cesc Fabregas.
Whether flinging pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson as an Arsenal kid or slapping Spurs players in the testicles last May, the Spaniard is the great pyromaniac of footballing firestorms.
When we talk about spite, we’re not talking about managerial ‘mind-games’ between Pochettino and Antonio Conte — which will be served up with ladles of gravy. These men have mutual respect and the fact Conte wasn’t around last season means it is unlikely to get personal between them.
But among the players, there is real enmity — which promises to make Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final between the top two such gripping theatre.
And by the way, the dear old Cup will look more alive than ever when four of the ‘big six’ contest the semis as if their lives depend upon it.
Pochettino’s players will absolutely see this as a chance to lay down their marker in the title run-in.
A chance to prove they will not go all ‘Spursy’ under pressure.
There is a belief at Tottenham that they are stronger for last season’s capitulation.
And also a recognition that, despite the odds stacked against them, these next six weeks represent a key moment in time.
Pochettino correctly pointed out that Spurs have grown organically, as opposed to Chelsea being transformed by Roman Abramovich’s fortune.
They made a transfer market profit for five successive years before last summer’s Moussa Sissoko aberration.
Yet however remarkable Tottenham’s story, there is a recognition that this success is not built to last.
Recognition that Spurs must get used to playing ‘home’ matches in unfamiliar stadiums for the next two seasons.
And recognition that Pochettino has worked miracles with a core squad of 15 top-class players — while their rivals boast 20 to 25 such men — despite injuries to Harry Kane, Danny Rose and Jan Vertonghen.
In the Spurs boardroom, they urge on Real Madrid almost as keenly as their own team, so deeply do they fear that a downturn in Zinedine Zidane’s fortunes will cause the Bernabeu giants to move for Pochettino.
There is also belief that key full-backs Rose and Kyle Walker could have their heads turned by offers from Manchester clubs.
Especially as they head into their late 20s without a trophy and on half the wages of players at rival clubs.
Spurs have far tougher games down the final straight — with two home games to Chelsea’s four — and there is not a straightforward one among Palace (a), Arsenal (h), West Ham (a), Manchester United (h), Leicester (a) and Hull (a).
But there is belief inside the tight dressing-room Pochettino has built.
A recognition that this is the time for death or glory.
And a deep desire to humiliate Chelsea.
Jack’s in the dock
WHEN Jack Wilshere and Joe Hart — two of England’s key players going into the disastrous Euro 2016 campaign — were farmed out on loan by their clubs, both had opportunities to move abroad.
Manchester City keeper Hart’s career has been reinvigorated at Torino.
He remains England’s No 1 and will have no shortage of suitors this summer, with Liverpool leading the way.
Arsenal midfielder Wilshere, meanwhile, stayed cosy at Bournemouth and has utterly failed to make any positive impact.
He was a great talent, who once bossed matches against Barcelona and Brazil.
But now Wilshere is beginning to look like the archetypal, inward-looking, the-world-owes-me-a-living English waster.
Sea, it is possible
IT is 20 years since the asset-stripping DIY mogul Bill Archer and failed Lib Dem politician David Bellotti ripped the heart out of Brighton FC.
They sold the Goldstone Ground for a profit and left the club homeless and on the brink of non-league.
But, two decades on, the Seagulls are in the Premier League with a fine new stadium.
Coventry, Charlton, Blackburn, Blackpool and Leyton Orient struggle under owners like Archer and the late Bellotti.
Let Brighton’s rise be inspiration to their fans.
These parasites will never kill your clubs, no matter how hard they try.