Mauricio Pochettino’s cow will certainly not have seen this one coming as Inter Milan staged a late fightback to send Tottenham Hotspur crashing to a third successive defeat for the first time under their manager.
Spurs were heading for a Champions League victory until two goals in the final six minutes left them already facing an uphill battle to qualify from a Group B that also includes Barcelona.
Mauro Icardi had been anonymous until he equalised in the 86th minute with an unstoppable volley. And it was from yet another set piece that Spurs fell to a cruel defeat and had Pochettino’s bizarre pre-match cow analogy ringing in the ears of his players.
Pochettino had used a cow failing to comprehend what time a train is due to demonstrate that his team must learn their lessons, but Tottenham fell into the same old trap in Milan.
With two minutes of stoppage time played, Stefan de Vrij headed a corner back towards goal and Matias Vecino rose highest to nod it past Spurs goalkeeper Michel Vorm and send the San Siro wild.
It was only Inter’s second success of the season and questions were inevitably raised about the decision to leave Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier in London, which Pochettino, who had otherwise been calm, bristled at.
“Regrets? Why? Why? Against Watford and Liverpool they (Alderweireld and Trippier) were on the pitch,” said Pochettino. “What a question. Easy targets. Easy to talk about the players not here. Like Hugo (Lloris) and Dele (Alli) and Sissoko. We need to talk about football.
“You force me to say something not good. You disrespect the players who today showed their quality. Why disrespect them? You can blame me and say you were rubbish gaffer with your selection, but don’t blame the people who played.
“Sometimes you ask like you can only play 11. Another 14 are s***, are rubbish, I don’t know. It’s so easy. I am so disappointed. I respect you a lot. I respect the players. You disrespect the players. I don’t understand why. Being a player is so difficult. For me it’s easier on the touchline. I don’t run. It’s painful to hear you killing people who give their best.”
Before Tuesday night, Tottenham had never lost three in a row under Pochettino and the Argentine must now inject confidence into his team following a run of defeats, a string of disappointing performances and Harry Kane’s ongoing troubles.
But Pochettino felt Spurs offered encouragement they will quickly improve, saying: “The most important is to be strong and we are strong. We’ve shown we will be the same as in the past. We have quality.
“Today I start to see good signs that the team is coming back. We showed great personality. We controlled Inter Milan in the San Siro, a difficult place, we showed big character and we were unlucky not to keep the result we deserved. That is my assessment.”
Even without Alderweireld and Trippier, Tottenham should have wrapped this game up after Christian Eriksen had put his team ahead.
Following a first half that Inter had started well, Eriksen struck in the 53rd minute with slightly fortuitous effort that Samir Handanovic will be disappointed he did not stop.
The Inter goalkeeper kept out Eriksen’s first effort, but the Dane’s second shot rebounded off Miranda and looped over Handanovic who only managed to palm it back into his net.
Tottenham and Pochettino will not have cared how the goal came about, and it immediately gave the visiting side an extra spring in their step.
Kane, despite some industrious running, had squandered the best chance of the game before Eriksen’s opener, when he got his feet in a mess in the 37th minute.
It was Eriksen who played a delicious ball over the top of the Inter defence and when Kane brilliantly rounded Handanovic there looked to be only one outcome. But the striker could not sort his feet out and the ball dribbled out for a goal-kick.
Other than that chance it was Inter who had threatened during the opening 45 minutes. Vorm had to be alert to save from Davison Sanchez, who headed an Ivan Perisic cross towards his own goal.
But Sanchez made up for that error by cutting out a low cross from Radja Nainggolan that was heading for the waiting Icardi.
Matteo Politano also curled an effort wide just after the restart, but, following Eriksen’s goal, it was Tottenham who should have added to their advantage.
Erik Lamela was the main culprit as he should have given Handanovic no chance with a shot the goalkeeper saved and he failed to find Kane from a superb position in the penalty area.
Pochettino eventually replaced Lamela with Harry Winks, but Tottenham were made to pay a heavy price for the Argentine’s misses.
Icardi, making his Champions League debut, had barely had a touch until Kwadwo Asamoah sent over an 86th-minute cross that he lashed past the diving Vorm. Then Spurs failed once again failed to deal with a corner and Vecino won the game for Inter.
Full time - Inter 2 Tottenham 1
Spurs have lost three in a row for the first time under Mauricio Pochettino. And this one will seriously sting, having come within seven minutes of a win. The San Siro erupts - it was a barely deserved victory, but their grandstand finish was too much for Spurs to withstand - and they're officially back at Europe's top table.
Mauricio Pochettino, and his figurative cows, have some thinking to do.
GOAL! Inter 2 (Vecino, 90+2 min) Tottenham 1
Four added minutes. The San Siro want a winner, and Icardi's head nearly gets to a cross, but a Spurs defender nods it over for a corner! In it comes, some excellent pinball stuff...and Spurs survive. Another corner, though...it's an outswinger...back it comes...and Matias Vecino nods into the corner!!!!!
88 min - Inter 1 Tottenham 1
A precious three points has become an acceptable-ish point. Icardi's goal just looks gorgeous from every angle. The knackered Nainggolan finally gets a breather as Inter settle for a draw, and Harry Kane - more than a little laboured tonight - is replaced by Danny Rose.
GOAL! Inter 1 (Icardi, 86 min) Tottenham 1
WHAT. A. VOLLEY.
The ball is spread left to Kwadwo Asamoah, whose cross looks like its curled too far out, only to meet the right boot of Mauro Icardi on the edge of the box, and he slams a volley into the bottom-left corner! That moment of quality has finally arrived for Inter.
85 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Lucas Moura dances down the left like he's a Gareth Bale 2010 tribute act, but his cross doesn't match that promising approach work.
82 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Vorm booked for timewasting. Spurs a little closer to a precious three points to kick off this tricky-looking group.
80 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Nainggolan, legs rather heavy now, is still trying to force open the door from his central midfield role, but Spurs have shut up shop for the night. We're into the "booming message for the travelling fans in both languages" phase of this match.
76 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
There's still no way past Vertonghen and Sanchez for Inter, and it looks like staying that way. Throw in a solid showing from Aurier, and Pochettino's "technical decision" to leave Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier looks fine after all.
73 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Harry Winks replaces Lamela as possession becomes the order of the day for Tottenham. Keita Balde is on for Inter, meanwhile.
72 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Moura goes again, skipping down the left channel to feed Lamela, who can't beat the advancing Handanovic.
67 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Inter trying to pick it up, but there are few outlets for them other than hopeful balls in the vague direction of Icardi. Spurs now looking comfortable, and Moura slaloms through before the ball is smuggled back to Handanovic.
63 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
It's all happening! Lamela's shot is saved, the ball doesn't quite fall for Kane, but it does for Son! He's flagged offside, though, as he plants the ball past Handanovic into the corner. Lucas Moura enters the fray, to replace Son.
59 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Spurs now full of confidence and Inter are looking strained at the back. Son Heung-min spoons a volley straight at Handanovic.
56 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 1
Now Lamela's joined the party - he tries a left-foot curler from distance which is deflected just wide. Spalletti gesticulates on the touchline - what have Inter got in response?
GOAL! Inter 0 Tottenham 1 (Eriksen, 53 min)
Spurs have the breakthrough! And Christian Eriksen's persistence pays off. First, he tests Handanovic with a low shot from 25 yards, which is parried. The ball pops back up, Eriksen sticks out a leg and it loops over the despairing goalkeeper's glove and into the back of the net!
51 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Vertonghen is booked for tugging the shirt of compatriot Nainggolan as Inter tried to capitalise on a stray Dier pass on the halfway line. The free kick is a long way out, Brozovic tries the surprise pass down the channel to Politano, who lifts the ball over the bar.
48 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Politano bends a left-foot shot high and wide of the Tottenham goal for the opening salvo of the second half. He wants a corner, and doesn't get one.
46 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
No changes for either side at the break, but some more open football would be nice.
Half time - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
After all the pre-kick-off noise and Inter probing, it's Spurs who had the clearest opportunities to break the deadlock. The most glaring of all fell to Harry Kane, who just couldn't rearrange his limbs quickly enough to squeeze the ball home. Encouragingly for Pochettino, the hosts don't seem to have any more ideas.
43 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Tottenham break. Son finds Kane down the middle, who feeds the ball out to the rampaging Aurier, whose cross is excellently dealt with by a diving Handanovic at the near post. Spurs soon have a free kick out on the right, though - Lamela swings it in, but Kane is penalised for a high boot.
39 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Inter have a free kick, dead centre, 25 yards out after Sanchez dives in on Nainggolan. He's booked. The left boot of Politano gets the nod...but his effort is deflected over by the Tottenham wall.
37 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Son gets free down the left, but his whipped cross is flicked away by De Vrij at the near post before a white shirt could get a sniff. Meanwhile, Harry Kane has been invisib....hang on, Kane's in! He collects a superb ball from Eriksen, rounds the goalkeeper...but runs out of grass! What a chance.
35 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
For all their huffing and puffing, Inter are yet to carve open a chance, or even a chance of a chance. Vertonghen almost does it for them by falling over in his own box, before Brozovic fires well wide from distance.
29 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Politano nearly springs the Spurs offside trap to get on the end of a raking Marcelo Brozovic pass, but the flag goes up. The "Champions League is back!" fervour appears to have died down, sadly.
25 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Spurs defending very solidly, although Inter are yet to pose a real test. Dembele not quite at his undispossessable best, though. Perisic gallops down the left, crosses and Davinson Sanchez nearly heads beyond Vorm! The keeper dives out to punch away.
21 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Milan Skriniar is booked! The Inter right-back stops Son Heung-min with a forearm on the corner of the box, and now Spurs have a chance to deliver. Eriksen is in charge, of course, but Handanovic eventually gathers.
19 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Ben Davies goes in late on Radja Nainggolan - it was very clumsy, but the referee doesn't make an early dip into his pocket. Inter load the box for another set piece, which Matteo Politano bends into the box...and out to safety.
16 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Aurier gifts Inter a cheap corner by skidding a header away from Vorm, but the stand-in Spurs keeper gratefully receives the corner at the near post. Inter's early storm has been just about weathered, so it's probably time for Tottenham to come out of their shell.
12 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Davinson Sanchez is forced into an acrobatic overhead clearance as Inter continue to press, but now Lamela wins a free kick 30 yards out for Spurs! Eriksen has a long look at it...and Samir Handanovic beats it away!
10 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Tottenham, trying a little too hard to look like a team who have settled into this game, let the mask slip as Sergue Aurier allows the ball to roll out of play. Inter then force a corner, which gets the San Siro voices going again, but Vertonghen heads away. Inter on top, without question.
7 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Important early observation:
Pochettino wearing his lucky estate agent by day, assassin by night suit— Ali Tweedale (@alitweedale) September 18, 2018
5 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Spurs escape a high Inter press with some neat football by their own corner flag, and make their first tentative sojourn into the other half, before Harry Kane is gently - but firmly - nudged towards Row A. Nothing doing.
3 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
San Siro sounds well up for some Champions League football - the first Inter have had for six years, no less. Eric Dier plays a very brave/silly pass across his own box to Jan Vertonghen, who deals with it. Moments later, Mauro Icardi is through...but the flag is up.
1 min - Inter 0 Tottenham 0
Spurs get us off and under way, in an awkward-looking all-white kit.
Teams are out...
The home crowd greet the opening bars of the official Champions League anthem with a huge roar, the San Siro pitch looks absolutely mint, and let's have some luvverly football
Poch's pre-match words:
We have five changes because we are in that period of the season when we need to rotate the squad. Some players are tired. The circumstances are a lot different to last season. We try to use a different formation in different periods of the game - sometimes diamond, sometimes two strikers, sometimes two players out wide.
Inter's primary threat
Here's more from Ali Tweedale on the dangers Inter pose:
Winger Perisic and centre-forward Icardi are Inter's main attacking threats. They have started this season slowly but last term Icardi was Serie A's top scorer, with 29 goals, while Perisic scored 11 and set up nine more. Seven of those assists were for Icardi goals, making them the most effective duo in the league.
The key for Spurs, then, is cutting off not only the supply line to Icardi, but also the passes in to Perisic in deeper positions. If he is given the space to run with the ball he is difficult to stop, and Tottenham right-back Serge Aurier's propensity for a rash challenge could make Inter's left flank a source of success.
Spalletti has attempted to combat the fact that opponents are now better at keeping Icardi under wraps by signing a new striker in the summer in Keita, but he is yet to find his feet, or the net.
For Spurs, stopping the supply line both to and from Perisic will be key to their night.
A proper European venue
The current state of Internazionale
Stability hasn't exactly been a watchword at Inter in their modern history, but Ali Tweedale has managed to pick apart the current iteration of I Nerazzurri, as I'm obliged to refer to them at least once:
Their 65.9 per cent possession rate is more than any other team in Serie A this season, but 60 per cent of their shots have come from outside the area and just 37 per cent have hit the target, suggesting they are keeping the ball well enough but are struggling to get into dangerous areas.
The fact that neither of their strikers, Mauro Icardi and Keita Balde, have scored this season, and they have had just four shots on target between them, suggests this is very much a work in progress.
This team has bags of potential, but they are not quite reaching it yet.
Team news! Four changes for Spurs...
In come Davinson Sanchez, Ben Davies, Erik Lamela and Son Heung-min:
Retro Corner, Part One: Bale's carbon-copy hat-trick
There are consolation goals, and then there are consolation hat-tricks. Back in 2010, during Tottenham's first visit to the continent's top table for nearly half a century, they experienced a chastening first half at the San Siro against the reigning European champions. Then, Gareth Bale did this.
Here's how our man Jason Burtreacted that night:
The young Welshman’s name will now resound around Europe after an astonishingly courageous hat-trick. He was an individual wrecking ball against one of the most rugged defences in the world.
Bale is a phenomenon. A 21-year-old force of nature down the flanks. Not just because of his precocity and power but because of just how quickly he has progressed.
The word of the Law
Should get teams in about 20 mins. My predicted line-up in the paper was Tottenham (4-2-2-2): Vorm; Aurier, Sanchez, Vertonghen, Davies; Dier, Dembele; Eriksen, Lamela; Moura, Kane. Let's see..— Matt Law (@Matt_Law_DT) September 18, 2018
Three is the tragic number
Firstly, a fact. Tottenham are yet to lose three successive games under Mauricio Pochettino. The pillaging of Manchester United at Old Trafford feels like a lifetime ago and, after a well-documented summer without a single signing to freshen things up, there are some whispers that New Spurs have maybe, just possibly, run out of steam.
Three defeats in a row would constitute a crisis - The Official Football Crisis Panel have ruled as such since 2010 - and it is at times like this, even early in a season, where you need your leader to stand up and say something truly weird. Cue Poch:
If you are not clever this experience does not help. Like a cow who sees the train cross in front at the same time, but you ask the cow what time the train comes and he won’t have the right answer.
It wasn't quite his seagulls/trawler moment, because his withering putdown of the tired concept of "experience" was rather tidy. Anyway, if a European night away to Inter can't galvanise his lot - a squad who can hardly be bored of the Champions League slog just yet - then nothing will.
Kick-off at the San Siro is at the highly untraditional 5:55pm BST. I'll bring you the team news, and some obligatory memories of past encounters, before then.