Wednesday 13 December 2017

Spurs throw down title gauntlet as hounded City run ragged

Dele Alli is fouled on the edge of the box during Tottenham’s victory over Manchester City. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images
Dele Alli is fouled on the edge of the box during Tottenham’s victory over Manchester City. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Jason Burt

Hot off the press: Tottenham Hotspur are genuine Premier League title contenders and Manchester City are not unbeatable.

Tottenahm 2 Man City 0

This was a remarkable match: A game full of everything that is good about the Premier League and which pitted two of the most progressive coaches in world football - Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino - against each other. It was bewitching.

Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld
Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld

And it was all about the press; that harrying, push-up-the-pitch approach which both managers demand, that underpins their philosophies and which has now been affirmed as the best way to combat Guardiola's City.

Pochettino needed to meet fire with fire, yet what was so amazing here was the aggressive relentlessness of Spurs - they never stopped - and how they operated in numbers.

"Move, move, move," barked Pochettino from the technical area as he cajoled his team to get up the pitch - and they did just that, all the time.


They hounded City and hunted in packs. The performances from front to back were phenomenal, with the tone set by the way the rejuvenated Son Heung-min took the game to City and ran them ragged.

The South Korean deservedly received a standing ovation when he was substituted late on. He was virtually scraped off the pitch as he had squeezed out every drop of energy, but beaming with the widest of smiles at the final whistle.

This was some marker, in fact, for Spurs to lay down as they asserted their own title credentials and showed that it will be no cakewalk for City.

Guardiola knew that anyway, but now, after 10 straight wins in all competitions, he has suffered a 3-3 draw away to Celtic in the Champions League and tasted defeat for the first time as City manager.

Five goals have also been conceded in two matches, which is unpalatable food for thought going in to the international break.

Whether other teams can match this breathless and breathtaking Spurs performance remains to be seen, with Guardiola acknowledging the home side were better and "one step ahead of us".

The result is also good for the league.

Spurs are now the only unbeaten team, ending City's record, and are just one point behind Guardiola's leaders, with the top bunching up as the title race begins to shape up to become an epic.

When Guardiola reviews this game - as he will time and time again - he will have it confirmed that teams sense vulnerability in his full-backs. Spurs got at Pablo Zabaleta and Aleksandar Kolarov and maybe replacing a 31-year-old and a 30-year-old will be priorities as City evolve under this manager.

In fairness, Kolarov has started the season well, one of several transformed under Guardiola, but he had a terrible time in midweek in Glasgow and it appeared to unsettle him, as he blundered badly here to score an own-goal when under minimal pressure.

It came through a move that occurred time and time again, with Victor Wanyama winning the ball back to feed Erik Lamela, who then pushed it wide to Danny Rose. His cross was too high for Son, but Kolarov panicked and tried to clear with his right leg, only for the ball to strike his left and ricochet into the net off the frame of the goal.

It bolstered Spurs' belief that the lead was claimed so early on. They redoubled their efforts, with Pochettino sensing they needed a second and possibly a third goal to win, such is City's potency and ability to score quickly.

The second came eight minutes before half-time and owed everything to what Spurs are about.

This was the blueprint of what Pochettino demands as they broke forward, harried and retrieved, and would not let City settle or clear. Eventually Son played a clever reverse ball which Dele Alli ran on to - with Nicolas Otamendi failing to track him - and the midfielder turned the ball low past goalkeeper Claudio Bravo.

City could not find their stride, but there was always danger when the play was near Sergio Aguero and Wanyama bundled him over on the edge of the penalty area, with the striker's free-kick turned away by Hugo Lloris. A free-kick from Christian Eriksen just cleared a post as chances were traded and the pace never relented.

It was evident that, despite all this, Pochettino wanted more.

It was also clear that Guardiola was unsure of how to respond.

Things may have been different had Lloris not turned Aguero's shot against a post, although it should have been Spurs who scored again in the second-half when they were awarded a penalty.

It came when Alli burst into the area and was caught by Fernandinho, kicking his calf. Lamela stepped up, but his spot-kick was too close to Bravo, who dived to his left and pushed the ball away.

If that gave City a chance, they could not take it, although there were two more excellent saves from Lloris in another sign of the threat Guardiola's team pose even when they are second-best.

The keeper denied sub Kelechi Iheanacho, who tried to slip a shot underneath him, and then adjusted quickly to turn over Aguero's powerful drive, which took a deflection and was heading for the top corner.

Deservedly, brilliantly, Spurs had the win and even the clean sheet.

"The performance was nearly perfect," Pochettino said, showing his delight. And it was.

Hot off the press: City can be beaten. The gauntlet has been thrown down. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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