After Tottenham’s empahtic defeat of Stoke, they are now the connoisseurs’ choice as champions, even if they don’t catch Leicester.
When Tottenham first visited the Britannia Stadium, they were officially the worst team in the league. Now they are unofficially the best. A performance that showcased everything that is right about Mauricio Pochettino’s side – the technicality, the physicality, the potency, the creativity, the hunger – embellished their claim to pre-eminence. The famously truthful league table suggests otherwise and if the improbability of Leicester’s rise appeals to the romantics, Spurs’ prowess may make them the connoisseurs’ choice as champions.
Beating Stoke 4-0, and inflicting the Potters’ heaviest home defeat for three years, showed these particular Spurs are very, very hot. They are breathtaking on the counter-attack, both the Premier League’s top scorers and the possessors of its most frugal defence. They have taken 32 points from 13 games, but none in more impressive fashion than the latest three.
Now the equation has altered. They are five points behind Leicester with four games to go. They are running out of time, but Tottenham specialise in running, often at high intensity. “We are not going anywhere,” Harry Kane said, striking a note of defiance, but in a rare moment where anyone at Spurs expresses any enthusiasm for standing still. Talk of their pressing game emphasises the energy in their approach, but it should not deflect from the quality.
It was displayed in abundance at Stoke. “It was a perfect performance,” said Pochettino. “It was fantastic from the beginning.” Tottenham can exhaust and eviscerate, they can outrun and outplay. They did each. They were fast and fearless. They were epitomised by the impudent Dele Alli, a player brimming with such confidence that he could showboat while showing his substance. He parted the Stoke defence with a lovely backheel when Christian Eriksen hit the bar. He had the chutzpah to chip his finish for his first goal. He volleyed in his second nonchalantly. “He showed unbelievable skill,” said Pochettino. “He scored two goals and had one miss.” Alli flirts with hubris and when he darted past Shay Given, one on the brink of his 40th birthday embarrassed by one who has just turned 20, he contrived to miss an open goal by striking the post.
Pochettino thumped the ground in annoyance then. “I feel a bit embarrassed,” he admitted later. Alli can frustrate at times. More often he just exhilarates. He offers the excitement, Harry Kane the reliability. The top scorer’s double felt utterly unsurprising. One was taken with a craftsman’s virtuosity, the other a yeoman’s reward for making his umpteenth burst into the box. He has 24 league goals now, 22 in the last 25 games. He is a reserve reinvented as WhiteHart Lane’s answer to La Liga’s goal-a-game Galacticos.
Kane’s amiable nature disguises his menace. He is a predator in the guise of a friendly family dog. He posted a picture on Instagram of a herd of lions. The message to the league leaders was clear. Leicester risk being hunted down.
“We need to try and put pressure on Leicester to reduce the gap,” said Pochettino. “This is our dream. If Leicester fail, we need to be there.” That is the real ‘if’: Tottenham, on this form, will maintain their pursuit. Leicester need to take the eight points to hold them off. They stuttered on Sunday. “You wouldn’t bet against them catching Leicester,” said Stoke manager Mark Hughes, a winner of two Premier League titles in his Manchester United days. His former club made a habit of finishing such seasons strongly. His current charges are rarely overwhelmed like this.
“Spurs were very impressive; they were stronger, faster and had more power in the team,” the Welshman accepted. He may have been thinking of Mousa Dembele, who eats up ground in the midfield, or the all-action full-backs Kyle Walker and Danny Rose. Most admirable of all, though, is the way inventors like Eriksen ally incessant running with incisive passing.
He supplied the assists for both of Alli’s goals. Tottenham’s transformation has been accelerated since his arrival, but the journey began at the Britannia Stadium. That, too, featured a precocious talent, but it had a more ignominious ending. Gareth Bale, then a left-back who seemed a jinx, was one of two Spurs sent off in a defeat in 2008. It was their modern-day nadir. They had two points from eight games, a fact Harry Redknapp was not slow to mention in the next few years. A bemused, somewhat hapless manager, Juande Ramos concluded his press conference by saying rather mournfully: “This is football.” Within a week he was gone.
Tottenham were bottom then. They may be top at the end of this season. This is football, too, but of an altogether superior brand and with a sense of endless possibilities, not phlegmatic helplessness. “All can happen in football,” said Pochettino. It can. It just might.