James Lawton: Why Tottenham superstar Dele Alli is not the future - he is now
Spurs young gun shows his potential for greatness in Chelsea destruction
The question has been simmering for some time now but this week it did rather more than come to the boil. It flew out of the pan and scalded Antonio Conte and his champions-elect Chelsea so severely the Premier League season surely has a new focus. It concerns the potential of Dele Alli. How good, really, is Tottenham's rocketing asset?
At 20, and halfway through his second season in the top flight, he is certainly too gifted, too composed, too visionary to be comfortably placed in the category of young players to watch and chart as they strive to put some flesh on the bones of their native talent.
Alli announced on Wednesday night at White Hart Lane he is not the future, he is now. The goals that destroyed Chelsea could not have been more masterfully conceived and executed had they been the fruit of a decade of experience and growing accomplishment at the highest levels of the game.
They were superb examples of those qualities which have always separated great players from the merely very good. They were jewels of timing and understanding of pace and the flow of the game.
When his inspired provider Christian Eriksen floated in the crosses, Alli lost his markers as though they were operating in iron chains. And what execution! The big, notably able Chelsea goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois was on both occasions beaten the moment Alli's head glanced against the ball.
Of course, even in a Premier League so dominated by a foreign presence, it is not that unusual for a young English player to suggest that perhaps there is a place for him somewhere near the centre of the world stage.
Indeed, in the nineties a "golden generation" was endlessly trumpeted. The garlanded David Beckham, the spectacular Steven Gerrard and his midfield England partner Frank Lampard and the quick-fire Michael Owen were said to have the means to win it all. But, of course the reality was different - as it was, in the end, for the two players most compellingly recalled when Alli produced his sublime touches against Chelsea.
One was the ultimately tragic Paul Gascoigne, the other was the Wayne Rooney who promised the football earth but, for all his impressive statistics for club and country, has produced rather less at a time in his life when most great players are still around their prime.
So, we were bound to ask amid the wreckage wrought by the assassin of Chelsea, might this just be a case of third time lucky? Can Alli indeed go all the way to the highest company?
There was a growing conviction that he might before the latest breakout.
Former England midfielder Jamie Redknapp was not far short of rhapsodic when Alli ravaged Southampton with a virtuoso, two-goal performance in the post-Christmas action.
"I think he possesses everything to become one of the best midfield players in the world," said Redknapp. "How much did Tottenham pay for him? Five million. Well, you can add a zero to that now. He is surely a £50m player already. He can score goals, he can make goals and he has the devilment that all good midfielders have always possessed. He is just a sensational footballer.
"Tottenham are very lucky to have him. Coming from MK Dons, it is amazing how quickly he has become one of the best players around. The best thing is that there is so much to come from him. I say in the nicest possible way he's got that good footballing arrogance I've only seen a few times in my life. Steven Gerrard had it when he was just 16, 17."
It probably needs to be said that much of this kind of thing has been heard before. Gascoigne was similarly extolled before his emotional meltdown in the 1990 World Cup and eight years later England manager Glenn Hoddle sent him home from another World Cup camp before the first ball was kicked.
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Rooney set English hearts aflame in the 2004 European Championships in Portugal. Then, he displayed the kind of competitive maturity which Alli hinted at so strongly against Chelsea. But it was his last significant impact on a major international tournament.
Will Alli stay the course with more enduring authority? Liverpool's dedicated veteran James Milner came home from an otherwise disastrous European Championships in France last summer convinced that Alli, while still a teenager, had already shown the makings of a huge career on the international stage.
Milner declared: "As good as he is at the moment, he will be 10 times better by the time he's finished. He has a great attitude and he will keep working and improving but we need to keep the spotlight off him and let him develop and improve. We have already seen how good he is and it's just a start, I know."
Milner, one of the more committed pros and at 31 enjoying an impressive Indian summer under Jurgen Klopp at Anfield, has seen many casualties on the road to special football status and his confidence in Alli is looking increasingly well founded.
It does not appear to have been touched by some recent turbulence in Alli's background. The attempted return into his life of a father who went absent when he was still a baby has been firmly rejected, along with the idea that a recent lull in form was anything more than the brief equivalent of a growing pain.
Naturally, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino is aglow at the rate of his protégé's progress. The Argentinian has a good record in the matter of separating hopes from reality but he required little prompting to announce, "Dele Alli is the most important player to emerge in English football in recent years. He has a lot of aggression, ruthless and determined when he goes forward, which makes him extra dangerous. He understands the play very well, he's very strong and he has confidence in himself."
Plainly, he has a chance and one that, so far at least, appears unaffected by the potential distraction of a new girlfriend, a beautiful model of lingerie. Certainly he could not have been much more single-minded this week. A great player? It depends on how long he continues to play out of his shining skin. The best part of 10 years will probably do.
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