Friday 23 March 2018

If Tottenham can beat Chelsea at Wembley they should be seen as favourites for the Premier League title

Tottenham Hotspur Manager Mauricio Pochettino during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Tottenham Hotspur and Juventus on August 5, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)
Tottenham Hotspur Manager Mauricio Pochettino during the Pre-Season Friendly match between Tottenham Hotspur and Juventus on August 5, 2017 in London, England. (Photo by Stephen Pond/Getty Images)

Miguel Delaney

If so much of the noise around Tottenham Hotspur has been about lack of signings, low wages for disgruntled players and the threat of their whole financial model stretching to breaking point, it has not yet had any effect on the pitch.

Mauricio Pochettino’s side looked as tight as ever in beating Newcastle United 2-0 on the opening weekend, but more importantly looked as if they can still grow, as if there’s even more to offer.

They were the complete opposite of stricken Chelsea in that way and it means Sunday’s match at Wembley between last season's top two could yet have the opposite effect for Mauricio Pochettino's side.

So much of the build-up to this game has been about last season’s champions trying to avoid a proper crisis, but the flipside is that it could be such an opportunity for last season’s main challengers.

It is as big a game for Spurs in a different way. If Chelsea do lose, would it then mean that Spurs should be considered favourites for the title?

They’d have as strong a statement as anyone. They may not be able to spend anywhere near as much as either of the Manchester clubs, but they’ve already defied the current economic realities of the Premier League to be the main challengers in both of the last two seasons, and enjoy the arguably greater benefit of a fully coherent quality team that possess even more potential to improve.

For all the talk about the mentality of the side in run-ins and the blow-up in 2016 as well as the deflating defeat to West Ham United in 2017, the reality is that in both cases they gave themselves far too much to do by those points.

It wasn’t actually how they finished, but how they started. Spurs have been very slow coming out of the blocks in the last two campaigns, taking five matches to claim their first win in 2015, and only winning one of their first three last season.

To get six points from the first two games this term, with three of them coming against the champions, would be quite a way to break a trend - and would also bring a breakthrough.

Much of the rest of the noise around Spurs has been about the move to Wembley, but a victory there against Chelsea in their very first home game would instantly quieten all that. It would cease to be a discussion.

There is an argument that too much was made of Wembley in the first place given that Spurs were on poor league form when losing there in the Champions League last term, as Pochettino argued on Friday: “When we played there it was not the best part of our season.”

Even if that is the case, it still doesn’t mean there isn’t an issue, given that their best asset over 2016-17 was their form at White Hart Lane.

It was hard not to say that part of the emotion around leaving the old stadium was a big part of why they produced the best home record ever seen in the Premier League. Since it would seem almost impossible to sustain that regardless of how well they adjust to Wembley, they’re going to have to make up for it in another way.

They’re ultimately going to have to win more away games if they are to win the league.

That is something that Pochettino is trying to make happen, by adding something different to their attack.

One of the remaining flaws with this Spurs side is that, when they don’t initially overwhelm opposition with their collective power or the precision of Harry Kane, Dele Alli or Christian Eriksen, they can be a bit blunt in the wrong way. The FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea was arguably the best - or, for Spurs, worst - example of this.

Once they’d got it back to 2-2 and were dominating to pound Chelsea back, they couldn’t really find a way through. Their approach amounted to swinging in crosses that Garry Cahill and David Luiz all too easily batted away. That is why Pochettino wants to bring in the unpredictability of a Ross Barkley - or a Wilf Zaha - to suddenly find that different way through, that immediate improvisation on the ball.

They won’t have someone like that for this game, but then Chelsea won’t have their first-choice defence and it is possible that David Luiz may have to go into midfield with Andreas Christensen and the still-adjusting Antonio Rudiger. Given the havoc Burnley caused in the extra space last week, what could Dele and Kane do?

It is ominous for Antonio Conte, but such an opportunity for Spurs’ season.

The other side of all this of course is that a defeat to a struggling Chelsea would be so deflating, and probably make Wembley even more of a discussion, while just pegging Pochettino’s side back.

That is why they must kill that kind of discussion now, and show the kind of ruthlessness that title favourites are supposed to.

They have set themselves up to do so. They just have to show the necessary fury, after so much sound.

This is a huge game for Chelsea, but also a chance for Spurs to make a huge statement

(© Independent News Service)

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