By Karl Matchett
As Tottenham prepare for the biggest test of their season to date, it’s worth sparing a thought for players beyond the threat of Harry Kane. While the English international might be making plenty of headlines, two-legged European ties are rarely just about the biggest name.
So fine are the margins at the elite level that the support cast must always have a role to play: across 180 minutes, a moment’s loss of concentration, one fleeting moment of magic or an inspired substitution can make the telling difference.
The top clubs want deep squads for a reason. When the stakes are highest and the reward could be an unimaginably big step forward, managers want to turn not to a reliable-but-uninspiring squad member, but to a player with both the ability and the reason to turn in a game-changing performance.
Not to one who will simply fill a void, but to one who demands of themselves and the team an improvement—and believes, with reason, that they can provide it.
For Spurs and their mission to break down the recently impassable barrier that is the Juventus defence, Erik Lamela might just be that man.
Lamela, now in his fifth season with the club, is once more returning to form and fitness, seeking to rediscover the consistency which briefly marked him out as one of the top talents in Italian football.
While in Serie A with Roma, Lamela became a free-scoring inside forward, notching 15 strikes in his final campaign before joining the then-White Hart Lane club—but he never found the net against Juventus.
Indeed, Lamela and his capital city club only tasted victory once in five attempts against Juve, the dominant force in calcio, while he was in the side. And, perhaps—even beyond the Turin club and into the wider context of football in Italy—the Argentinian feels he has unfinished business.
His final appearance for Roma came in May 2013: the Coppa Italia final, against eternal rivals Lazio. Lamela, alongside the likes of Francesco Totti and Daniele De Rossi, fell to a 1-0 defeat.
At the start of the following campaign he joined Tottenham, where he has embarked on a journey of both professional frustration and growth, alongside having plenty of personal off-pitch trauma to overcome.
Throughout his near-five-year spell in England, periods out injured have been as prevalent as positive runs of form. Both 14/15 and 15/16 were largely impressive by Lamela, but his debut year was ruined by a long-term back injury and last season was decimated by a hip problem which ran into November of the current campaign.
Mauricio Pochettino has eased Lamela back in gradually since then, with just four first-team starts—but the signs of late have been increasingly clearer that he is returning to his most effective level. Point-saving involvement off the bench against both West Ham and Liverpool recently were added to by a first goal of the season, in the FA Cup against Newport County.
“It’s about belief and taking decisions,” Pochettino said of the Juve match in his pre-game press conference. “We need to play with freedom and of course, with good ideas. Football though is always to be responsible, and to enjoy the game.”
He’s talking about Spurs’ overall approach, of course, in facing a rival playing at the top of their game—but his words are mirrored in both Lamela’s on-pitch style and in the process the head coach might go through to call upon his No. 11.
For Lamela is not simply a final third threat, but a player who has developed both more aggression and team work in his performance and also possesses playmaking traits.
It shouldn’t be forgotten that he claimed double figures for assists in back-to-back seasons for Spurs prior to his recent long lay-off; as much as Kane might be the prominent goalscoring threat, it’s players such as Lamela who have proven capable of fashioning the chances for him on a regular basis.
The bench is likely to be Lamela’s role at kick-off, certainly in the first leg and quite possibly in the return fixture, when Juventus travel to Spurs in three weeks’ time.
But that shouldn’t diminish the role he could potentially play, and given his recent resurgence, perhaps there’s one more chapter he’ll soon close against Italian opposition.