LONDON — Washing away the pain of last year’s botched Champions League campaign, Tottenham completed this group stage as Europe’s leading team.
A 3-0 victory over an ineffective APOEL on Wednesday took the team to 16 points, the highest total of any team this season, and first place in Group H ahead of holder Real Madrid.
That’s some progress for a team that could not even make the knockout phase last season, and is only appearing in the Champions League for the third time.
With top spot already secured, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino even had the luxury of giving fringe players a run-out at Wembley Stadium. Fernando Llorente and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou seized their chance by scoring their first goals for Tottenham, either side of Son Heung-min’s strike.
“It’s a massive change,” Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino said. “Last year we were so disappointed about how we played, about how difficult it was for us to compete in the Champions League. This season we have improved a lot.”
Not on the domestic front, though. Runners-up last season in the Premier League, Tottenham has slipped to sixth and is already 18 points adrift of leader Manchester City. The wait for a first English title since 1961 will extend into another season unless there’s a rapid transformation.
And there’s a danger the only way back into the Champions League is by winning it for the first time.
“We have spent a lot of energy … and maybe it has affected us a bit in the Premier League,” Pochettino said. “Now we have to be focused on the Premier League and win games there.”
That is something Tottenham has not achieved in a month, collecting only two points from its last four fixtures.
“We wanted to get back to winning ways and we did that tonight,” said Dele Alli, one of only three players retained from the side that drew at Watford on Saturday. “It’s important that as a team we stay together and keep building.”
Pochettino did have a chance to test the depth of the resources at his disposal in the buildup to the busy end-of-year fixture program.
Llorente’s wait for a Tottenham goal ended in his 17th game, on only his fourth start since joining from Swansea as cover for Harry Kane in August.
“It’s difficult when you don’t have opportunities,” Llorente said, “but you have to create them for yourself.”
The 32-year-old striker scored on the turn after meeting Serge Aurier’s cross in the 20th minute.
“It’s important for him,” Pochettino said. “When you are a striker you need to feel the net. Of course players need time to adapt, when you arrive at a new team with no pre-season you need time to find your best level.
“It’s difficult to play 20 or 30 minutes, it’s important for him to feel he can cope for 90 minutes. He is a player who is going to help the team a lot. He has been helping a lot but now with more confidence and belief he is going to help more.”
Llorente went on to set up the second. Son Heung-min played a one-two with Llorente on the edge of the area before striking low into the net in the 37th.
Nkoudou’s chance to get off the mark came in the 80th minute. The French midfielder, who joined in August 2016 from Marseille, netted with a deflected shot after waltzing through the Cypriot side’s defense.
“I’m very happy, for different players had a different opportunity to play and show their quality,” Pochettino said. “They will add quality and put pressure on the players in the first XI. To have more players with the confidence to compete for a place is important.”
The omens are good for Tottenham in the Champions League. The last two English teams to collect 16 points in the group stage went on to reach the final: Arsenal in 2006 and Manchester United in 2008. The furthest Tottenham has previously reached was the quarterfinals in 2011.
But despite winning its group, thanks to a victory and draw against Madrid, Tottenham could still face a tough team when the competition resumes in February. Bayern Munich and Juventus are among the second-place teams who could await the north London club in the draw on Monday.
APOEL exited Europe after finishing last in the group. Borussia Dortmund took third place to qualify for the Europa League despite losing to second-place Real Madrid 3-2.
More AP Champions League coverage: www.apnews.com/tag/ChampionsLeague