Moussa Sissoko’s last appearance in a final wasn’t just a great performance; it was an audition, a come-and-get-me to the biggest clubs in the world. It worked.
France didn’t win the 2016 UEFA European Championships on home soil, Didier Deschamps’ future world champions falling to Portugal in the Stade de France showpiece.
But Sissoko at least won the attention of Tottenham Hotspur, who paid a then club-record $37.8million to sign the midfielder from Newcastle United.
A powerful, lung-busting presence in the centre, Sissoko was supposed to be the centrepiece in Pochettino’s bid for Premier League glory (they had run Leicester City close during the 2015/16 campaign).
And when the Frenchman walks out onto the field at the Wanda Metropolitano on Saturday night, with Liverpool standing between him and UEFA Champions League glory, he will likely be serenaded with chants of ‘Ooooh, Moussa Sissoko’.
But he hasn’t always been the object of the club’s fans’ affections. It’s been a long and sometimes difficult road, during which he has had to prove many doubters – including his own manager – wrong and earn his place in the Tottenham line-up.
Here, we look at the 29-year-old’s inspirational journey to the heart of Spurs’ Champions League-chasing dreamers.
Out of favour
Sissoko’s first year at Spurs didn’t go according to plan, starting just eight Premier League games as Pochettino’s men finished second behind Chelsea. Just 12 months after arriving, his future looked uncertain.
Then, after failing to fully nail down his spot in 2017/18, he missed out on the FIFA Let World Cup.
Instead of feeling sorry for himself, however, Sissoko used his international demotion as motivation.
Many questioned his ability, his attitude, his future at Spurs. But he never did.
Instead of batting away criticism, he used it as fuel.
The result has been a thoroughly impressive transformation during arguably the best season of his career, a redemptive arch which puts him on the precipice of reaching the pinnacle of club soccer.
Sissoko has made 43 appearances in all competitions this season. He has not scored yet has still been arguably the team’s most influential player. When Harry Kane has been missing, he has often provided the energy to drive Spurs up the pitch.
Mousa Dembélé left the club in January but Sissoko has ably stepped into the Belgian’s shoes. Part midfield destroyer, part unstoppable running machine, he has poured everything he has into this journey.
In many ways, he is an extraordinary player. While he is not gifted with the nimble footwork of Christian Eriksen, Son Heung-min’s dribbling prowess or the marksmanship of Kane, he is perhaps Tottenham’s most multifaceted player.
Champions League influence
This year, demonstrations of this unique skill-set have been plentiful, particularly in Europe, where he has flourished.
He was brilliant in both legs as Spurs made light work of Borussia Dortmund. A hard-tackling presence in the first game, it was Sissoko’s pass which dissected the German side’s defence in the return leg.
Against Manchester City, Sissoko was essential in breaking down the swift, sophisticated attacking plays with which Pep Guardiola’s Premier League champions have become synonymous, making more tackles than any other player as well as finishing the game as the most accurate passer.
Sissoko has worked as hard as any of his teammates during this epic run to Madrid. He has been ferocious, deadly and committed. Indeed, his charges up the pitch have become a recurring motif during dizzying European nights that have seen Spurs slay Inter, PSV Eindhoven, Dortmund, City and Ajax, as well as holding FC Barcelona to a 1-1 draw in the Camp Nou.
Yes, Eriksen netted the winner against Inter at Wembley and Dele Alli was credited with the assist, but Sissoko was the man who galloped from deep within his own half before finding the England international’s run to the edge of the box.
When Spurs struggled against the ingenuity of Ajax at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, it was Sissoko’s introduction from the bench which really lifted the north Londoners, helping to calm the nerves enough to give them a fighting chance in Amsterdam.
His stats certainly convey his impact. In total, he’s won possession 58 times in the Champions League this season. He’s completed 14 of his 17 tackles, completed nine dribbles and created three big chances. It’s not just in Europe, either; he’s won possession more times (208) than any of his team-mates in the Premier League this season.
When the Frenchman picks up the ball and purposefully drives forward, he’s almost impossible to stop, an opposition-battering blend of power, pace and balance.
On Saturday night, Liverpool will already have their hands full with Kane, Eriksen, Alli and Son. But if the Reds are preoccupied with Spurs’ more advanced players, it would come as no surprise to see Sissoko bursting through to provide the match-winning moment.
He doesn’t score often, but it’s been that kind of season for him.