Tottenham's debt of gratitude to Ryan Mason, Pochettino's game-changer
Philippe Coutinho has said he had to work even harder for Liverpool earlier this season after a summer transfer to Barcelona fell through.
Barca failed with three bids for Coutinho in August, and he remained a Liverpool player when the summer window closed.
Coutinho said it was difficult to take at the time and that it left him feeling like he had to double his efforts for the Premier League side.
"In the summer, when the offer arrived from Barca, I was very clear with everyone because my ambition was to come here," he told Mundo Deportivo.
"In the end, it didn't go through and I had to work even harder when I got on the pitch so that the [Liverpool] fans didn't think I was doing things badly.
"It was tough, but I also have to say that I had some good moments at Liverpool and the fans treated me really well, even though I wasn't able to win any trophies there."
Coutinho scored 12 goals in 20 games for Liverpool after returning from a back injury this season before moving to Barcelona for €160 million in January.
He scored his first Barca goal in last week's Copa del Rey semifinal win against Valencia and said settling in had been helped by ex-Anfield teammate Luis Suarez and Lionel Messi.
"The welcome from Messi and Suarez has been great," he added. "They're two big idols for me and to play for the same team as them is great -- but not just with them, with Andres [Iniesta] and the rest, too.
"Playing alongside Messi is really special. Not everyone gets the chance to do that. That makes me really happy."
Messi turns 31 later this year but remains the key player at Barcelona, who are top of La Liga, into the Copa del Rey final and meet Chelsea in the Champions League next week.
Midfielder Ivan Rakitic says Messi might not be the most extroverted character, but he's still the best on the pitch.
"Messi's the reference," the Croatian told El Hormiguero. "Our play depends a lot on him, there's no need to talk to understand him, a gesture is enough.
"He's the best in history, capable of turning a game around in a second.
"He's shy because he knows that everyone is looking at him. But he was one of the first to help me when I got to the club, asking me if I needed anything. He's different to other people."
Samuel Marsden covers Barcelona for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @SamuelMarsden.
By Boxing Day, Jose Mourinho had seen enough.
"It is another 's' goal," he said, after watching Manchester United draw 2-2 with Burnley at Old Trafford.
He wasn't talking about Steven Defour's free kick -- that, clearly, was a very good goal. His problem was with the first.
Johann Gudmundsson's free kick from the left was dropped into the far post where it bounced off a combination of Marcos Rojo, Romelu Lukaku and Ben Mee before Ashley Barnes smashed the loose ball into the net.
Three days earlier, Leicester had snatched a stoppage-time equaliser through Harry Maguire after United's defence -- albeit with Chris Smalling barely able to move because of injury -- had failed to deal with a long ball into the penalty area.
At the start of the month the Manchester derby had been lost after Manchester City scored twice from loose balls bouncing around the box -- one after a corner and the other after a free kick. The following weekend Gareth Barry scored an almost identical goal for West Brom.
And so, by Boxing Day, Mourinho's frustration was on the verge of boiling over.
"You are intelligent, you don't need me to tell the whole word, another 's' goal," he said.
"I don't need to say the other letters of the word. That's what we're having now, lots of 's' goals against."
Sources have told ESPN FC that Mourinho accepted privately that the problems were being caused, at least in part, by tired minds after nine games in December.
However, the week-long training camp in Dubai in January was as much a refresher course in organisation and basic defending as it was about recharging batteries.
It will be a concern, then, that those goals are back.
A long ball from the kickoff against Tottenham at Wembley gifted Christian Eriksen the chance to score after 11 seconds. Newcastle's goal on Sunday came from Jonjo Shelvey launching a free kick into United's penalty area.
It is an odd quirk given that one of United's strengths this season was supposed to be the physicality of their players. Phil Jones, Smalling, Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba and Lukaku started at St James' Park and at Wembley and all are 6-foot or taller.
Even stranger is that between the draw with Burnley and defeat to Tottenham, United went six straight games without conceding, their best run since keeping eight consecutive clean sheets in 2004-05. They have also got the best defensive record in the Premier League, having conceded 19 goals in 27 games.
Still, Mourinho's postmatch news conference at Newcastle gave away a lot about what he thinks is his team's biggest problem.
Though most of the questions were about why United had not scored or how to get more out of Pogba, the 55-year-old was more bothered about the other end of the pitch.
He even refused to criticise Smalling after the defender had needlessly dived in his own half to give Shelvey the free kick that ultimately won the game.
"I think we have to say the goal is a mistake," he said.
"A lateral free kick which travelled a long distance to the box. We lose the first ball in the air because we didn't compete in the air and then we lost the second ball on the floor.
"We train, we work, we organise, and the players have their individual jobs when they defend zonal. The players, they know there are responsibilities."
It was frighteningly similar to his assessment of Eriksen's goal for Spurs.
"It's a performance that starts with a ridiculous goal," he said.
"The first goal is an accumulation of mistakes. We lose the first ball in the air, we lose the second ball on the ground and it was a really, really bad goal."
Mourinho, at least, has a clear week of training before taking his team to Huddersfield for their FA Cup fifth round tie on Saturday evening.
He will remember, though, that in the 2-1 defeat at the John Smith's Stadium in October, Laurent Depoitre's goal came after Victor Lindelof had made a mess of goalkeeper Jonas Lossl's long punt up field. In a season of those goals, that might still be the worst.
United's struggles with aerial assaults have contributed to a run of just six wins from 12 Premier League games since the start of December. It has seen Manchester City double their lead at the top from eight points to 16. United have conceded 10 league goals in the same period of which seven have been from long balls or set pieces into the penalty area.
Of all the issues that have been raised in the inquest following defeat to Newcastle, it is the one that will annoy Mourinho the most.
Rob is ESPN FC's Manchester United correspondent. Follow him on Twitter @RobDawsonESPN.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte said his side's 3-0 defeat over West Brom has helped lift the team's attitude.
Chelsea boss Antonio Conte said his side's 3-0 defeat over West Brom has helped lift the team's attitude.
Alvaro Morata admitted that it was a mistake to play through the lingering back pain that had contributed to his slump in form and confidence for Chelsea.
Morata scored eight goals in his first eight Chelsea appearances following a club-record £58 million move from Real Madrid last summer, but since then, he has struggled physically and mentally with the demands of a relentless schedule.
"Chelsea is a big club, a club that has given me the opportunity to play as a starter, to grow even more," Morata told Movistar. "It's a team where I'm very happy, where I started well until I had some physical problems.
"I made a mistake in that respect as I played with pain [earlier this season]. I went through a poor spell where I missed important goals but I wasn't well physically and mentally. I have to grit my teeth and do all that I can to return. We have the Champions League tie [against Barcelona]."
The Spain international returned to the pitch as a substitute in Monday's 3-0 win over West Bromwich Albion at Stamford Bridge, producing a lively 30-minute cameo after replacing January signing Olivier Giroud up front and forcing several impressive saves from Ben Foster.
It was an encouraging sight for Antonio Conte, who has been without Morata for almost a month since the striker was sent off during extra time of Chelsea's penalty shootout win over Norwich City in a dramatic FA Cup third-round replay.
On Friday, three days before the victory against West Brom, Conte acknowledged that he was "a bit worried" about Morata's health, but Morata later responded to a fan on social media by declaring himself fit.
Conte said after the West Brom win that he wants both Giroud and Morata to gain sharpness on the pitch ahead of next week's Champions League round-of-16 first-leg clash with Barcelona, when Chelsea will be heavy underdogs despite playing at Stamford Bridge.
Barcelona have been in imperious form this season, led by Lionel Messi. The Argentine superstar has registered 20 goals and 10 assists in 23 La Liga appearances and will be looking to end a bizarre eight-game scoring drought against Chelsea when the two teams meet on Tuesday.
"There's no way to stop Messi," Morata said. "The only way is for him not to have a good day, but that's difficult because most of the times he has good days. Let's hope we can get a good result there [in the second leg], play well defensively and find spaces.
"But first, we have to play a good game here and get a good result, which is not easy against Barcelona."
Liam is ESPN FC's Chelsea correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Liam_Twomey.
Ryan Mason did not often score but when he did, it was often a goal that changed everything. Two of Mason's four goals for Tottenham, his boyhood team, were season-shifting strikes that helped alter the course of the football club he loves.
Mason's untimely confirmation he has retired as a player, aged 26, following a horrific head injury came hours before the biggest game in Spurs' recent history: Tuesday's Champions League round-of-16 first leg against Juventus. Were it not for their former midfielder and the movement he helped to create, Spurs might not be in Turin at all.
When you changed it all for us mate .. we love you ???? ..Always with you ❣️# COYS https://t.co/020H8kW8iE
Mason took just six minutes to make a difference on his senior debut. Spurs were trailing Championship leaders Nottingham Forest 1-0 in the League Cup in Sept. 2014 when Mason, then 23, came off the bench to score a dipping, long-range equaliser with almost his first touch.
Spurs scored twice more in the final 20 minutes to record their first win in five matches under new manager Mauricio Pochettino. Mason's goal, Pochettino's assistant Jesus Perez said on Tuesday, "changed it all for us".
Pochettino has since revealed he was already fearing for his job in those unsteady early months and although he has credited the 2-1 win over Aston Villa five weeks later as the true turning point, he might not have made it that far were it not for Mason.
The goal changed everything for Mason too, and three days later he started the north London derby at Arsenal -- back when Spurs were still the underdogs in that fixture -- helping them to a 1-1 draw, as Pochettino's fledgling team began to turn the corner.
"He deserves a lot of credit as he helped us and the team," the Argentine later said. "For that, he will always be a special player for me."
Mason's next big goal came almost exactly a year later. By then, he was an established part of Pochettino's midfield, providing bite and energy and the hint of a goal-threat.
Tottenham had started the manager's second season with just three points from the first four matches -- a defeat at Manchester United before frustrating draws with Stoke, Leicester and Everton -- and the pressure was back on Pochettino and his players ahead of a trip to Sunderland.
The visitors did not record an effort on target in the first half and their staid play suggested something fundamentally wrong. Cue Mason, who flew into a challenge with Costel Pantilimon, managing to dink the ball over the Sunderland goalkeeper before impact to score an 82nd-minute winner. He was stretched off while the away end celebrated, missing the next five weeks through injury.
The goal removed the shackles from Pochettino's Spurs and they would go on to challenge for the Premier League title for the first time in the club's history. Mason's sacrifice would be significant, however. He never fully won back his place in the team and Pochettino reluctantly agreed to sell him to Hull City in the following summer. "It was a sad day," the manager later said.
The outpouring of support and emotion from Spurs fans at the news of Mason's retirement is about more than 70 senior appearances and two big goals.
It is an acknowledgement of the freakishness of his misfortune -- one header has ended all that work, all those loans, all that grafting to be get where he was -- but also of the part he played in something altogether more significant.
Mason, along with Kane, has come to represent a movement that has united the club from boardroom to terraces in the last four years. The idea of local players, and genuine Spurs fans, playing for the first-team was not an aspiration before Mason and Kane proved how valuable it could be.
"One Of Our Own" is not just a terrace chant and a social media hashtag. It is why Kane spoke fondly of Francesco Totti, the ultimate one-club superhero, ahead of the Juventus game. It is why the striker has said he may never leave Spurs, and why his career may genuinely be better for it, even if Real Madrid come calling. It is why Pochettino and Perez, just as they did when Mason suffered the injury back in Jan. 2017, will reach out to him in the wake of his retirement.
And it is why it would be no surprise to see Mason soon return, in some capacity, to the club he has played such a big part in moving forward.
Dan is ESPN FC's Tottenham correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @Dan_KP.