LONDON (Reuters) - Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino said he always believed in French midfielder Moussa Sissoko, even when most had given up on him as an expensive misfit.
Signed from Newcastle United in August 2016 for a fee of 30 million pounds ($38.48 million), Sissoko spent most of his first season as a bit-part player, usually starting on the bench.
This season, however, a switch to a more central role has seen him flourish in Tottenham’s engine room and at Wembley on Wednesday the home crowd sang his name, just as they had a few days earlier when he ran Chelsea’s midfield ragged.
It was Sissoko’s marauding run into the Inter Milan area with 10 minutes remaining that finally unlocked the defence, allowing Christian Eriksen to seal a 1-0 win that kept alive Tottenham’s hopes of Champions League progress.
Considering Pochettino failed to add a single player to his squad in the off season, the emergence of Sissoko from the shadows is an unexpected bonus for the Argentine as the club battles on multiple fronts this season.
Sissoko has started the last six Premier League games and while Eriksen grabbed the headlines on Wednesday, it was the 29-year-old Frenchman who was rightly named Man of the Match.
“His team-mates are so happy that the fans are now starting to show the love,” Pochettino said.
“There was a tough period for Moussa but I remember one day I hugged him when he was coming off and I told him, ‘You are going to be a success here’.
“Now he starts to feel free and today he was key again, a key part of the success. It shows, of course, that he has been very professional and worked a lot and, of course, we have given him a great platform to improve.
“He gives the team great balance.”
While Sissoko lacks the silky touch of some of his team mates, his hard graft and ability to steal possession in dangerous areas, together with his powerful runs, are offering Tottenham another useful weapon.
Sissoko said he was reaping the rewards for his patience.
“I always try to work hard, even when it’s difficult,” he said. “At the moment I’m doing well, so I’m very happy.
“My team mates help me a lot. They were all behind me when it was difficult, so now I need to enjoy this moment and hopefully I can repeat this kind of performance.”
His muscular presence could be vital when Tottenham go to the Nou Camp next month knowing a victory will guarantee them a place in the last 16 of the Champions League for the third time.
“It’s not easy to play against Barcelona, one of the best teams in the world, but we are going to go there without pressure, play our game and try to win the game,” he said.
“That’s our mentality, that’s how you win games.”
($1 = 0.7796 pounds)
Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Nick Mulvenney