Tottenham have defied the odds to remain alive in three cup competitions and on course for a top-four finish in the Premier League after spending nothing in the summer but staying afloat without injured talisman Harry Kane could be the biggest challenge yet for manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Kane will not even be fit to train until early March after suffering ligament damage in his left ankle during Sunday’s 1-0 home defeat to Manchester United.
His absence could not have come at a worse time for Pochettino ahead of a potentially season-defining run of at least 11 games on four fronts over the next seven weeks.
What will Kane miss?
Kane is expected to miss both legs of Spurs’ Champions League last-16 tie against Borussia Dortmund, the second leg of a League Cup semi-final at Chelsea and the final should they progress, a trip to Crystal Palace in the fourth round of the FA Cup and the fifth round if Spurs make it through, plus seven Premier League games, including vital clashes in the battle for the top four with Chelsea and Arsenal.
The loss of the World Cup’s Golden Boot winner has been exacerbated by the departure of Son Heung-min to the Asian Cup — potentially for the rest of the month — leaving Pochettino desperately short of striking options.
Son is Spurs’ second top scorer with 12 goals behind Kane’s 20 this season. The South Korean has shown his ability to carry the goalscoring burden on the few occasions Kane has been rested and when he was briefly sidelined by right ankle ligament damage last season.
What are Pochettino’s options?
Pochettino will now be forced to turn to 33-year-old Spanish striker Fernando Llorente, who has played just over an hour of Premier League and Champions League football all season.
Llorente was strongly linked with a return to Athletic Bilbao this month due to his limited game time but is the only natural striker Pochettino can turn to as the shallowness of Spurs’ squad begins to be exposed.
Lucas Moura is another makeshift option who would offer more mobility than Llorente’s physical approach and might be better suited if Spurs are not to alter their style drastically for Llorente to feed off crosses.
However, after a bright start to the season, the Brazilian has scored just five goals since August.
Pochettino has also shot down any suggestions Vincent Janssen could be welcomed back into the fold 17 months after the Dutch striker’s last appearance for the club.
Do Spurs have to spend?
Tottenham became the first team in Premier League history since the introduction of the summer transfer window not to have make a single signing by the start of the campaign, and prior to Kane’s injury Pochettino expected another window without new arrivals.
The spiralling costs and the wait to enter the club’s new 62,000-capacity stadium have hampered Spurs’ ability to spend on new players, while Pochettino has previously spoken of the difficulty in recruiting a back-up to Kane.
“It’s so difficult to convince good players to come and then be on the bench. Then the problems start,” said the Argentine, who has instead prioritised squad harmony.
Chairman Daniel Levy is renowned for not splashing out and is under severe pressure to deliver a move into Tottenham’s new home before the end of the season.
However, Levy also has a fine balance to strike. Pochettino is a man in demand, with Manchester United looking for a new manager in the summer, as are a number of his players, most notably Christan Eriksen, who has just 18 months left to run on his contract and is attracting interest from Real Madrid.
Should Spurs shirk the chance to bring in more firepower and then crash out of the Champions League and both domestic cups before Kane returns, Pochettino will end his fifth season in charge without winning a trophy.
Champions League football for next season is also at stake, with third-placed Spurs just seven points ahead of Arsenal and a rejuvenated United in fifth and sixth.
At some point the thirst for success and the opportunity to work with far greater resources may become too much for Pochettino to resist.