For Tottenham and Cristian Romero, it’s all about the way back.
Going into this Sunday’s north London derby with Arsenal, live on Sky Sports Premier League, this is not the situation Spurs envisaged at the start of the season. Last term, the two teams were separated by two points. Now they’re somewhat chalk and cheese.
Arsenal lead the Premier League showing near-perfect consistency throughout the campaign. On the other side of the divide, you don’t quite know which version of Antonio Conte’s Spurs team you will get each week.
Spurs have to deal with the context of being 14 points behind their rivals going into the Super Sunday showdown – but it means little to Romero.
“I think we can come back from this far back,” the centre-back tells Sky Sports in an exclusive interview. “But there’s a lot of work we need to do, using everything we’ve got.
“If you’re top of the league, you deserve to be there and that’s where they are. But we want to be there ourselves. We know we need to improve a lot of things, but we are working hard thinking about us, not them.”
Romero knows about coming back from despair despite all the signs pointing against you. Aged 17, the centre-back nearly walked away from the game completely after being frozen out at boyhood club Belgrano as they were fighting relegation from the Argentinian top division.
“I didn’t play well for a couple of games and then the hierarchy said some terrible things about me,” remembers Romero.
“It was such a hard time. I was so young, it was my first year playing as a professional. I then spent around 18 months on the bench, always on my own, always playing in the reserves.
Romero tried to leave, with clubs in Europe interested in the young defender – but Belgrano refused to let him go. That was so nearly the final straw in a blossoming career.
“I said [to the hierarchy]: ‘I don’t want to train anymore. I’m going to give up football. I will go do some other work with my dad or go on to another thing,'” he recalls. “All because they were getting in the way of my career.
“I didn’t train for two or three days because I wasn’t feeling up to it. The sporting director then came to me and said: ‘Ok, you can go.'”
Look at Romero now. Not just an established Premier League player with Tottenham, but a serial winner with Argentina. Copa America, Finalissima, World Cup: all in the bag. You do wonder what the Belgrano hierarchy currently think of Romero’s success.
“At the end of the day, these things are valuable to make everything stronger up there in your head,” he says when asked if he thought about that time when lifting the World Cup this winter.
“If I hadn’t had gone through that, I’d be worse off. This period was such a positive moment for me to grow up. It is now a good memory for me.
“Playing here in the Premier League, being in the Argentina team, winning things with the Argentina team. These are all things that have come from the past.”
And yet there are still some critics – more over his temperament rather than his ability. For example, Argentina’s antics en route to winning the World Cup were questioned – most notably their wild celebrations against the Netherlands and France.
Two iconic pictures stand out: Romero joining his international team-mates in goading their Dutch counterparts in the seconds that followed their quarter-final penalty shootout victory, and Romero screaming in hat-trick hero Kylian Mbappe’s face after Lionel Messi put Argentina 3-2 up in the final.
Asked if people made too much about Argentina’s antics, Romero is quick to respond. “Yes. Only because people just see the photos.
“People don’t think about what was said before for us to get to this point. Against Holland, they spoke too much before actually entering the pitch and we were annoyed with that.
“They said we lacked respect but that’s not true. You can understand what would go on to happen.”
Asked about that incident with Mbappe, Romero replied: “Against France, it was the same thing. Messi scored [Argentina’s third goal] and it all just came out. It’s not the most beautiful thing in the world but it all came out.”
Now Romero is facing a prospect of another big game on Sunday, arguably the biggest in Tottenham’s calendar. Do not be surprised if the emotions come through once again from the Argentina defender.
“It’s always been there. It’s just the way it is,” said Romero when asked where his aggressive style of play has come from. “The most important thing that it’s there inside me.
“I think there are some who think I’m doing something wrong. Aggression – in my opinion – is a little bit of an exaggeration. My way of playing has taken me where I am, it’s one of those things.”
Romero, speaking Italian in this interview, does not say Arsenal’s name once. He frequently mentions the club names of Tottenham, Belgrano along with former clubs Atalanta and Genoa.
But while describing Mikel Arteta’s side, it’s ‘loro’ (them).
“If I have to say something about them, they’ve got a strong squad,” says Romero. “The players and the manager have been together for a long time.
“They are in an important moment in what they’ve been building for years and we can see that, at the moment, they’re doing well. For us, we’re in a position where we still need to grow.
“This game is important. We need to win it. We need the result. It will be hard, but I believe in our team. Between us, we’re always motivated. It’s not only just with the derby, even though it’s a very important game.
“The Premier League is difficult, there are many strong squads you play where you have to be 100 per cent for. If not, you can’t play in this climate.
“We know this season has been a bit up and down, we have to say it, but we hope to win. We will do everything to win this game at home.”
Watch Tottenham vs Arsenal live on Sky Sports Premier League on Super Sunday this weekend, kick-off 4.30pm