Pochettino faces selection quandary vs. Gent with crowded fixture list

Most Tottenham supporters would probably have been a little surprised, but pleased, when they saw the strength of the lineups against both Gent and Fulham.

The expectation was that reserve players such as Kevin Wimmer, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Josh Onomah, Georges-Kevin Nkoudou and Vincent Janssen would start at least one of the games in the Europa League and the FA Cup.

However, they have let the side down on various occasions and the manager has responded accordingly, selecting more trusted men instead.

Six senior players -- including Toby Alderweireld, Victor Wanyama, Dele Alli and Harry Kane -- have started the last two matches. Indeed, Kane was pressed back into action at Craven Cottage three days after suffering a blow to his knee in Belgium.

Things did not go according to plan against Gent last week, but Pochettino was rewarded for his team selection on Sunday with a confidence-boosting 3-0 win at Fulham.

The question now is how he will approach this week's Europa League second leg against Gent at Wembley.

The message from the past week seems to be that Pochettino is done with charitably handing out opportunities to people who are not meriting them -- but is it too early to sideline all those fringe players and rely on a smaller squad?

The top-four fight in the Premier League surely remains the priority, and Spurs host Stoke on Sunday. So is this the time for more widespread rotation or, given his side are 1-0 down on aggregate in their Europa League clash, will Pochettino ask Kane and co. to step up again this Thursday?

The tie remains eminently winnable and Spurs are generally the fourth favourites to go on and win the competition. Yet it would probably take their best players to turn this round-of-32 encounter around. Mousa Dembele admitted that Tottenham underestimated Gent last time and, if the Belgian outfit get an away goal, Spurs will need to score three times at least. The occasion calls for cool heads and experience as well as talent.

Meanwhile, Pochettino and Kane have both stressed the importance of getting more practice at Wembley, which is due to host all of the club's home games next season.

The mood matters and Spurs lost six consecutive competitive matches at the national stadium before December's 3-1 victory over CSKA Moscow. The players and fans need more positive memories and winning feelings, not talk of a "Wembley hoodoo," which can easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Pochettino therefore has every reason to select a strong lineup for a third successive cup match. But for how long can he maintain that approach, as Spurs seek success in three competitions over the next three months?

They have tailed off in each of the last two seasons, winning only three of their final eight games in both campaigns. And, while every week seems pivotal now, the truly decisive matches are likely to come in the last month when Tottenham host Arsenal and Manchester United.

If Spurs slow up in the final straight again this time, while using only a select group of players, a lack of rotation will probably be suggested as a factor.

So Pochettino also has cause to rest his stars against Gent this week -- and perhaps that was always the plan for this fortnight, regardless of the first-leg result.

Either way, the manager has too few players he can truly trust. The good news at least is that Kieran Trippier and Harry Winks both impressed alongside senior teammates at Fulham. Earlier in the season, their appearances on a team sheet would have suggested a weakened lineup, but few fans would now complain if they started against Gent.

Winks, in particular, has been the breakthrough act of the season and is quickly establishing himself as the solution to a persistent problem -- how to cope without Dembele. The experiment of having Wanyama, Dembele and Winks in the same team did not work in Belgium last week, but Winks is increasingly providing evidence that he can play instead of Dembele and emulate the Belgian's creativity.

Meanwhile, Eric Dier can return to the midfield with Jan Vertonghen back and take some of the pressure off Wanyama.

Pochettino now has good strength in depth in central midfield, while his first-choice centre-backs need less rest than other players, and Trippier has deputised capably for Kyle Walker so far in 2017.

The problem comes in the final third because, while Son Heung-Min has shown he can make an impact -- albeit inconsistently -- Moussa Sissoko, Onomah, Nkoudou and Janssen have done little to merit selection.

Erik Lamela's eventual return will help but, in the meantime, Pochettino faces a tricky problem. He must ensure Spurs keep scoring goals and fighting on three fronts in the short-term, while also ensuring his top attacking players are still at their best when the prizes are actually handed out.