• Striker says team were not ‘mentally’ ready for West Ham game
• Repeat performance risked Champions League semi-final defeat
It took most of Tottenham’s players over an hour to leave the dressing room after falling to West Ham but, when he finally emerged, Fernando Llorente’s message cut straight to the point. If Spurs produce a repeat performance against Ajax on Tuesday, their dreams of reaching the Champions League final risk evaporating before the second leg has even begun.
Llorente had been brought on midway through the second half to pose West Ham a different threat with the game goalless. Within a minute Michail Antonio had finished decisively at the other end and the overriding theme, after a sluggish attempt to come back, was that Spurs need to liven up and quickly.
“Maybe it’s better, no?” Llorente said when asked whether such a jolt to the senses from a local rival might train minds on a far harder task. “It’s right, we need everyone to wake up because if we play like this on Tuesday we will lose, easy.”
The 34-year-old Llorente, a backup striker whose inclusion has sometimes seemed a last resort since his arrival in August 2017, has been peripheral to Spurs’ rise but perhaps they have found the moment to lean on him. They did so when, albeit through a combination of arm and hip, he bundled in the decisive goal in the quarter-final against Manchester City and when a former Champions League finalist – one of only two in their squad alongside Toby Alderweireld – speaks, it is usually worth listening.
It was alarming from a Tottenham perspective, then, to hear Llorente suggest their mindset for the West Ham game had not been correct. He used the caveat that a European semi-final is its own universe but, like Mauricio Pochettino, had clearly been wrong-footed by such a flat display.
“This kind of game [the semi-final] doesn’t need to be prepared for because the mentality of all the players will be different,” he said. “But I don’t think I can understand why the mentality of the team wasn’t ready to play against West Ham. I don’t know [why] but I told you, if we play like that against Ajax then for sure we will lose.”
Part of the reason is almost certainly that Tottenham are stretched towards the limit. It took a grinding effort to see them past Brighton last Tuesday and moments like Christian Eriksen’s late flourish will not always come to hand. Against Ajax they will miss Son Heung-min, who might have made for a more sedate Saturday if he had beaten Lukasz Fabianski early on, through suspension, while their injury list shows scant sign of easing.
Moussa Sissoko may have recovered from a groin problem by Tuesday but at times like these a figure like Llorente, who appeared twice as a substitute for Juventus when they eliminated Real Madrid in the 2014-15 semi-final, can assume a new dimension. “I always think each one can be the last one,” he said of his unexpected return to that level. “For this thing I will fight as if it is the last time.
“For me it’s unbelievable. It’s an amazing opportunity to give my best to help the team, to demonstrate I can help the team and I will try to do my best.”
Llorente will probably start on the bench again, although Spurs will have noted that he is the only player available who could have scored the two thrusting headers Ajax allowed Cristiano Ronaldo in their quarter-final win. They hope their attacking movement can still trouble the Dutch side, but a tighter defensive showing will be required too. West Ham could have added to their lead and it was eye-opening to hear Antonio say the Hammers’ win might be a blueprint for Ajax’s vibrant forwards to find joy.
“Definitely,” he said. “The gaffer [Manuel Pellegrini] knew what we had to do and that was to make runs in behind them, because their defenders do not like to face their own goal. That’s how we created the goal and this victory.”
West Ham were stirred, too, by a pre-match speech in which Mark Noble pointed out the horror Spurs would feel at the thought of their old enemy being the first winners at their new stadium. Theirs was a triumph of both heart and mind. Tottenham require both to be in a far better place when their big night comes round.