Arsenal and Leicester, watch out, Spurs' title challenge looks for real
The fixture computer's cruelest trick was to schedule a top-four showdown before the most congested spell in the season. Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal emerged as winners on a dramatic day for the Premier League's leading quartet on Sunday but they will barely take breath before the pressure ratchets up a notch.
Spurs are first back into action with an awkward away tie to Fiorentina in the Europa League on Thursday. An all-London FA Cup tie against Crystal Palace follows hard on its heels at the weekend before the second leg with the Italian side. Battling on three fronts wears the legs and drains the brain. Tottenham are not alone.
Arsenal are also in two cup competitions. Perhaps they can afford to rest players against Hull City in the FA Cup this weekend. There will be no such luxury allowed in the Champions League with Barcelona coming to the Emirates on Feb. 23.
Manchester City, the biggest losers of the weekend, are still contesting four competitions. An FA Cup tie at Chelsea on Sunday is tough and the long Champions League trip to Dinamo Kiev (played on Wednesday) and back is exhausting. They return to a Wembley League Cup final against Liverpool on Feb. 28. For all three clubs, the season could unravel before they play another Premier League match.
For Leicester City? Well, they start this hectic period with a week off. Claudio Ranieri didn't know what his players would do. "Go to Dubai?" he suggested. He was having a day in London and then returning to Rome. The team will gather again next week to prepare for a straightforward-looking home match against Norwich City. It's their very own, custom-built midwinter break.
They need it. Jamie Vardy left the Emirates after the Arsenal match walking like a man who had strained every muscle in his body. The attritional nature of football is much more intense than it appears from the sidelines or on the TV screen. Coping with the relentless pace of the Premier League is difficult enough but when games come thick and fast there is little chance to recover.
For manager Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs, this could be a real concern. Their style of play -- a relentless, seemingly inexhaustible pressing game -- requires the highest levels of fitness. In 2016, Spurs have played 10 times in 45 days. They have kept up a pace that Quique Sanchez Flores, Watford's manager, described as being "like animals" after Tottenham beat his side. By the time they renew Premier League hostilities they will have played 13 times this year. Leicester will have played nine.
Pochettino has been astute in his use of the squad since the new year. The Tottenham manager has used 20 players and has mixed and matched nicely. Three men have taken the part in all 10 games, however, and provide the core of the Spurs side. Harry Kane was on the bench for two of the three FA Cup games but was called into action both times. Eric Dier and Christian Eriksen have started every match. The importance of this trio to the team cannot be overstated.
As recently as the beginning of February, Pochettino was putting his squad through rigorous twice-a-day training sessions. As the pace of the season increases, training generally becomes less intense. Having found himself in an unexpected title challenge, the 43-year-old will have to fine-tune his conditioning routines to keep his side at maximum efficiency on the pitch.
Alan Hansen, the former Liverpool great, once shrugged off the idea of fatigue affecting a team chasing glory. "You don't get tired when you're winning," he said. There is some truth in that but the balance between physical and mental strength is fine. Hansen came into a side that knew how to win and had experienced pressure. Tottenham have not won a trophy since the League Cup in 2008 and have not brought home the title since 1961.
Spurs have a reputation for flakiness. Only now is there a sense of real belief growing around this group of players. Until the past two weeks those around White Hart Lane were playing down suggestions that there was a title challenge developing.
On the positive side, Tottenham are playing with a robust conviction that they can triumph. When City threw everything they had at Hugo Lloris's goal at the Etihad, Pochettino's side held their nerve and - and even better -- retained their ambition. These are good signs but young teams can lose conviction quickly. Spurs have built their challenge gradually after a steady start. They look like the best team in the division at the moment.
The question is simple: are they peaking too early?
Pochettino's team selection against Fiorentina will give a great insight into his thinking and priorities. Does he put out a full-strength side against the third-placed team in Serie A? Or does he give the Premier League priority. The same question applies in the FA Cup. Which trophies does he really believe are attainable?
Tottenham began the season aiming for the top four. The victory at the Etihad makes that almost a foregone conclusion. Now a new campaign has begun. A title race. Have Spurs for the appetite for it? Or the legs? We will find out in the next month.
Manchester United vs. Midtjylland's 'moneyball'
The most intriguing Europa League tie is Manchester United's match away to Midtjylland. The Danish champions are owned by Matthew Benham, who also owns Brentford, the Championship side. Their approach to recruitment and tactics can only be described as "analytics on steroids".
In the most simplistic terms, Benham's clubs practice a form of "moneyball." How they match up with United, who have pioneered "waste of money-ball" under executive vice-chairman Ed Woodward, should be the most entertaining sight of the week.
Aston Villa's preparations for the descent
Aston Villa are going down. Their meek surrender to Liverpool in the 6-0 defeat at Villa Park was humiliating. Manager Remi Garde looks like a man who knows he has made a massive mistake. He does not appear angry, just numb, as if overwhelmed by grief. At least Garde and the club's fans have one thing in common, then.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.