This was a victory which spoke volumes for Tottenham Hotspur’s stubborn conviction that the title race is far from done and dusted. They laboured for long periods and, even when in the ascendancy after the interval, still often ran aground on Crystal Palace’s resistance. But Mauricio Pochettino and his players are not ready to give up the pursuit. Chelsea cannot rest easy just yet.
This tight, fiercely fought London derby was into its latter stages with Palace, a team reborn and recent victors over three of the top six, long since forced into a full-scale retreat when Spurs finally prised them apart. Christian Eriksen picked up possession in a rare pocket of space, territory which might have been swallowed up had Mamadou Sakho not departed with a serious knee injury, and whipped a shot from 25 yards which dipped in front of Wayne Hennessey’s outstretched right hand and fizzed into the corner.
The delight which erupted in the closest corner of the Arthur Wait stand, and was replicated on the visitors’ bench on the opposite side of the pitch, reflected as much relief as pride. Both emotions were justified. This had been a test of Tottenham’s psychological reserves, a scrutiny of their ability to react to defeat in the FA Cup semi-final and to Chelsea’s victory over Southampton on the previous evening.
A seven-point gap had gaped overnight. A defeat would have dashed all their hopes. Even a draw would not have been enough. There was simply no margin for error and the team responded.
That will have pepped up Pochettino more than the nature of the victory. There had been uncomfortable moments up to the interval, when Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha had been at their most influential and James McArthur’s energetic late runs into the box had hinted at reward. Spurs had been anxious, hampered by Mousa Dembélé turning an ankle and Victor Wanyama’s caution for a lunge on Luka Milivojevic. The Kenyan committed another foul on Townsend before the interval and was taken off almost for his own good, and the switch to a more fluid, attack-minded approach thereafter coaxed confidence from the visitors.
Whether they would have forced Palace back in quite the same relentlessly suffocating manner had Sakho not been forced off remains uncertain. The loss of a centre-half should not dictate a team’s entire approach but over less than three months the Frenchman had established himself as the life and soul of this selection, and a source of inspiration for the team.
Seeing him crumple to the turf, twisting his left knee as his leg buckled and wincing in anguished pain, seemed to shock his team-mates. He departed on a stretcher, his season almost certainly over, with the body language of the home side instantly more downbeat.
“Initially we fear it’s a ligament but which ligament we don’t know,” said the Palace manager, Sam Allardyce. “We hope it’s not the cruciate but there was certainly a hyperextension of the knee. We will see after a scan. So we’ve lost Mama, Scott Dann and James Tomkins, and we don’t know if any of those will be fit again this season.” Even with Martin Kelly in the best form of his spell at the club, and Damien Delaney now a veteran at this level, that recent burst of 19 points from eight games seems even more of a godsend for them. One more win should see Palace safe.
Spurs need another five to stand a chance of achieving their own target, starting with Sunday’s north London derby against Arsenal, when victory would guarantee them a higher finish than their bitter rivals for the first time in 22 years. There was plenty to admire in their second-half approach here, where Harry Kane led the line impressively and Dele Alli sparked into life. It was the England midfielder who reached Kyle Walker’s vicious delivery only to steer his volley wide of the far post. At the time that miss seemed critical. Yet Eriksen, dictating his team’s rhythm from the centre, would eventually find his range.
The Dane revels in space and, always on the move, he was never truly pinned down by Palace. McArthur and Milivojevic did their best but the playmaker glided beyond them too often. Once ahead, the visitors could trust in their own stingy defence. Palace barely mustered a shot of note in the second half, their energy sapped following Sunday’s exertions in victory at Anfield. Kyle Walker recovered his poise after a tricky first half to suppress Zaha, while Toby Alderweireld saw off Christian Benteke. Few markers have managed that over recent weeks.
Yet Tottenham can appear a class apart at times. Their eighth successive league win has shaved Chelsea’s lead and by kick-off on Sunday they might even have the incentive of reducing it to a single point. “It was a big challenge today, to be still alive in the title race,” said Pochettino. This race is still there to be run – and won.TG