Tottenham Hotspur will face Manchester United in their second FA Cup semi final in two years. It’s fair to say that lots of people make them favourites for the tournament. The big question that Mauricio Pochettino will have to answer this weekend, however, concerns Harry Kane.
After his ankle injury sustained against Bournemouth a few weeks ago, the speculation became about whether or not his season was over. Instead, Kane came back after just a few weeks, and so it’s natural to ask if he’s actually fit. Indeed, his performances since coming back have shown that he’s not at his usual sharpness. That sounds harsh for a man who’s scored two goals since his return, and in any case you’d expect a couple of games where he came back up to match fitness
But it does feel as though he’s rushed himself back to something approaching fitness earlier than expected.
There are two reasons he might have done that. One is the FA Cup semi final – and this is a massive chance for Tottenham to win their first trophy under Mauricio Pochettino, and like Manchester City in 2011, to start off a deluge of silverware. The other is the much-publicised race between the Spurs striker and Liverpool sensation Mohamed Salah for the Premier League golden boot.
It’s natural for Kane to care about both, obviously, so the following questions shouldn’t be asked of the player but of his manager.
Firstly, since Kane’s injury, Pochettino has been forced to play in a slightly different way. With Son Heung-Min up front and players like Erik Lamela coming into form, it’s clear that Spurs’ play has been even more about pace and fluidity than usual. Given that they’ve hit a rich vein of form without their star striker, it’s legitimate to ask if the team better without him – that is, in the short term, whilst things are going so well and Kane is arguably not at top speed in terms of match-fitness.
The other question probably doesn’t bother Pochettino so much, but it should matter to England fans: is Harry Kane doing himself significant damage by playing if, indeed, he is not totally fit?
By that I don’t just mean that he’s aggravating an injury. The ankle itself may well be healed just fine. But for a player who has played so much football over the past few years, many onlookers felt as though an injury layoff was potentially a good thing: a chance for a rest before the World Cup.
Nobody should criticise Kane for this. He’s a striker who wants to score goals and break records. Whilst his single-track mind might be the subject of social media laughter at the moment, it speaks of a man who is driven and will succeed as a player. There might be some issues around taking goals off teammates and the fact that this is hardly conducive to squad harmony, but on the whole you have to be in awe of his dedication.
There an obvious comparison with Cristiano Ronaldo, a man who is similarly driven to score as many goals as possible and to break as many records as he can. The problem Ronaldo has had over the years, however, has been managing his body: rest is necessary, and the Portuguese star has often played in meaningless La Liga games before big Champions League.
That, in itself, isn’t a bad thing. An insatiable hunger for goals is what you want in a striker. But it’s up to a strong manager to assess the situation and harness it properly.
This weekend is the biggest game that Tottenham currently have on the schedule between now and the end of the season. A victory will mean a cup final and a shot at a first trophy of the Pochettino era. This is not the time to be leaving a player like Harry Kane on the bench. But you wonder if playing him in midweek against Brighton, presumably because he wanted the chance to score goals, was a wise move from the manager.