Spurs are taking care of their bodies. The question raised by the 2-0 victory at Aston Villa on Sunday, is how well their minds are holding up.
In midweek, Tottenham took a knee in front of the Yellow Wall. At powerful Borussia Dortmund, Spurs fielded a team filled with backups and kids. Tottenham lost, 3-0, and pretty much surrendered its chance of winning the Europa League.
At the start of the season the cup competitions seemed to represent Tottenham’s best chance of a trophy. The goalposts have moved. Spurs are in the hunt for the Premier League title. After they threw away a victory against 10-man Arsenal the previous Sunday, Mauricio Pochettino, the Spurs manager, diagnosed tiredness and a midweek rest for some of the big horses he has ridden so hard this season.
On Sunday, at Aston Villa, Spurs were sprightly and lively as they won, 2–0.
Villa was awful. It needs wins and opted to play a wide-open style. The approach didn’t work. Not that any approach has worked for Villa this season.
For 80 minutes, Tottenham was utterly dominant. If it had not been for Brad Guzan, Harry Kane might have buried Villa long before he scored just before half time. After he added a second in the 48th minute, Tottenham was able to reduce its pace to a muscle-saving jog. A measure of how tame the match was is that it contained just 12 fouls, roughly half the number in the three Premier League games on Saturday.
Tottenham seemed to be comfortably tightening its grip on second place. Yet in the final 10 minutes it almost threw the game away.
Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede and Joleon Lescott all hit the woodwork for Villa. Lescott and Gestede, in particular, squandered chances a Premier League player should have buried. Tottenham can expect to face that sort of player in every game from now on.
It might be that, having taken their foot off the gas, Spurs could not react as Villa threw on strikers and made a final effort. But the number of wayward passes, wild clearances and missed tackles suggested that Spurs were suffering nerves. Maybe that was the problem against Arsenal.
As the Premier League season enters its high-pressure final laps, Tottenham, like Leicester, has a short injury list. Spurs are in good shape physically. Mentally, they look less healthy.
Playing catch-up—Tottenham’s victory cut Leicester's lead to two points and put the pressure on the Foxes ahead of their home game against Newcastle on Monday.
It might be that Rafa Benítez will inspire an instant resurgence from the Magpies, although, perhaps, the Newcastle board is simply copying a page from the Sunderland playbook and appointing a new manager just ahead of the Tyne-Wear derby. It's worked repeatedly for Sunderland in recent seasons.
Whatever the Rafa effect, if Leicester plays the way it has been playing, it should win.
Yet Leicester finds itself in an unfamiliar position. This season, it has played more games at the traditional time slot of 3 pm on Saturday than any other club. Arsenal, Manchester City and most of all Tottenham, because of the Europa League, have played far more games late on Saturday or on Sunday. In the recent round of midweek games, Leicester played, and drew, on a Tuesday, its three pursuers played, and lost, on the Wednesday.
This week the order is reversed. Leicester takes the field knowing that City drew tamely at Norwich on Saturday but also that its closest pursuer, Tottenham, closed the gap to two points on Sunday.
It might be that playing last inspires Leicester. If not, it isn’t a problem the Foxes will face often the rest of the way.
The TV stations have finally caught up with Leicester. Next weekend it plays on Saturday. After that, it plays on four consecutive Sundays. Yet, by a quirk of the scheduling, Tottenham, which has a lot of Monday games coming up, will play after Leicester on five of the next six weekends.
The TV games for the penultimate weekend have not been decided and on the final Sunday all the games kick off together.
So far, going first has suited Leicester.
No hat-trick for Arsenal—When Danny Welbeck missed two late chances, the first with an open goal beckoning, in the dying minutes Sunday as Arsenal lost, 2-1, at home to Watford in an FA Cup quarterfinal, the groans from the faithful at the Emirates were probably echoed in Leicester and the Tottenham half of North London.
No Spurs fan would have wanted Arsenal to win a third straight FA Cup. But they would have been hoping for an energy-sapping replay. Once they’ve been eliminated from the Champions league by Barcelona on Wednesday, the Gunners will have no choice but to focus on the league.
For its second North London derby in a week, Arsenal again showed its fighting spirit after it had dug itself into a hole. Last Sunday, Arsenal rallied when it was 2-1 down and reduced to 10 men. This Sunday, it only showed its teeth after Watford had taken a two-goal lead after 63 minutes.
Watford came to defend. Arsenal, as usual, did not. It allowed Watford chances. Odion Ighalo, bullying Gabriel as he spun and shot, and Adlène Guedioura, with a strike that probably generated a sonic boom, scored on two of them.
The measure of a great team is that it can break down opponents who show it the respect of defending en masse as Watford did. Wenger’s Arsenal is built to pick apart such teams. It could not.
Even though Mesut Ozil again sparkled, Arsenal summoned one dangerous strike on target before Welbeck, set up by Ozil, gave it hope in the 88th minute. But Welbeck missed the next two chances, to bring him nearer to his career average.
The loss was Arsenal’s third straight at home. Its only victory in its last six matches was away to Hull, of the Championship, in the FA Cup last week. But, as Spurs learned last week, there is so much talent in this Arsenal squad that it is dangerous to assume the Gunners are beaten.
Approximate justice—Dmitri Payet should not have been on the field when he gave West Ham the lead with a precise free kick after 68 minutes at Old Trafford on Sunday. Anthony Martial’s equalizer for Manchester United, 15 minutes later, should have been disallowed.
Payet, who was booked for an innocuous challenge after 55 minutes, then dived, horribly, after Marcos Rojo had missed both the ball and the man in the penalty area. It was a bizarre flop because of Payet’s earlier booking and because he would have had a shooting opportunity.
When Martial finished off a goalmouth scramble by poking the ball in from close range, his task was made easier because Bastien Schweinsteiger had just demolished goalie Darren Randolph.
Of course the two managers did not see things quite that way.
Slaven Bilic complained of “two crucial decisions”.
“Penalty on Payet,” the West Ham manager told the BBC. “A clear foul by Schweinsteiger. Two decisions were against us.”
Louis van Gaal disagreed. He told BT Sport that he had already watched the videos.
“Payet was more or less diving,” the United manager said, showing great tact by including the words “more or less”.
“Schweinsteiger get a push off a defender,” Van Gaal said of the other incident, suggesting that poor Schweini was simply an innocent bystander. Schweini is NEVER an innocent bystander. Even if referee Martin Atkinson did not see the collision, he should have disallowed the goal simply because Schweinsteiger was in the vicinity and had to be up to something.
“There’s always discussion,” Van Gaal said.
Thank goodness for that.
In a strangely tame game, the goals and the refereeing were the most interesting moments.
Chelsea's season ends—Despite his reputation, Diego Costa had never been sent off playing for Chelsea. Until Saturday. So when Costa, who had already received a yellow card, leapt at Gareth Barry in the 84th minute, shoved him, bodied up to the Everton player, and, after shaping to bite his neck, kissed him, he must have known he was finally crossing the red line. Off he went.
Just two minutes earlier, Everton had taken a two-goal lead. Chelsea was going out of the FA Cup. It went out of the Champions League on Wednesday and is 10th in the Premier League, 11 points off the Champions league places. Its players could start planning their end-of-season party. Maybe Costa wanted to get to the bar early.
Costa, his manager Guus Hiddink said, had suffered a “multitude of provocations.” Everton, Hiddink said, “went after” Costa. But there is a reason why they tried that tactic on Mr Angry. And it worked.
Everton won, 2-0. Romelu Lukaku scored both. The first was superb. Lukaku cut in from the wing, embarrassing four Chelsea defenders with power, pace and skill. They learned their lesson and stayed away from him five minutes later as he received a pass on the edge of the area. This time he only embarrassed his Belgian teammate Thibaut Courtois, drilling a shot between the goalie’s legs.
Maybe the word of the day on Roman Abramovich’s cell phone as he watched Costa walk and Lukaku waltz should have been “patience.”
Lukaku arrived at Chelsea just after his 18th birthday in 2011 for £20 million. He made just 15 appearances split by two loan periods, without scoring, under four managers before being José Mourinho sold the striker to Everton for £28 million in 2014, a nice profit and only £4 million less than he paid that summer for Costa.
Maybe Chelsea would not have won the league last season if Lukaku, rather than Costa, had been its main striker. But with Costa fading into a red mist and Lukaku having scored 25 times in 26 games this season, there is no doubt who is the more potent striker. And Lukaku is five years younger than Costa.
Yet Chelsea will find it tougher than usual to restock. When Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003 the club was on the verge of bankruptcy but had just qualified for the Champions League. It has qualified for the Champions League every season since. Abramovich may well covet Lukaku, or Harry Kane or Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez but next season he won’t be able to offer them Champions League soccer as the cherry on top of a huge pay check. It is a thought that should also chill stuttering Manchester United and Manchester City.