Tottenham boost their Premier League title chances with victory at Man City
MANCHESTER, England -- Three thoughts on Tottenham's 2-1 win against Manchester City.
1. Tottenham prove they're for real
However it happened, and however loud the controversy reverberates over the coming days, Tottenham Hotspur have shown -- like Leicester last week -- that they are for real in the Premier League title race.
Manchester City had shown admirable application to draw level through Kelechi Iheanacho after Harry Kane's hotly disputed penalty had given the visitors the lead, but an 83rd-minute breakaway goal by Christian Eriksen sparked pandemonium in the away end and meant that City, still six points off the top, can firmly be regarded as outsiders in the title race now.
In what was largely a cautious game, the winning goal resulted from an attacking substitution from Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino. Erik Lamela, not exactly the type to lock down an away point, had just been introduced in place of Dele Alli when, after City lost possession on the halfway line, he was given the chance to run at the home defence.
The Argentine delayed his through ball for the perfectly-timed run of Eriksen, whose low finish was unerring past Joe Hart and meant the spotlight would once more shine on the goal that had opened the scoring.
City had started the second half strongly when, as had happened so many times in the first period, the ball was maneuvered out to Danny Rose on the Tottenham left. His cross was repelled by Raheem Sterling -- jumping with his arms raised a foot inside the area -- and referee Mark Clattenburg's decision to award a spot kick was instant.
Replays confirmed what the eye, albeit from a distance, thought it had seen: The ball had struck Sterling on his body, just below his left elbow, which meant the decision was patently incorrect. That would have been of little interest to Harry Kane, who scored confidently and celebrated at a length that reflected the goal's importance in the wider context.
The importance of the decision seemed to lessen when, in the 75th minute, substitute Iheanacho swept home superbly after Gael Clichy had cut back intelligently from the left. A draw would have sent neither team away particularly happy, though nor would it have made Clattenburg's call seem like the end of the world to City.
Now, though, the picture for both teams -- and officials -- could not look any different.
2. Spurs show their ruthless side
The last time these two sides faced off with stakes this high was on Jan. 22, 2012 when Tottenham -- who would have moved to within two points of leaders City with a win -- were beaten agonisingly by a late Mario Balotelli penalty.
Their front five that day comprised Luka Modric, Rafael van der Vaart, Aaron Lennon, Gareth Bale and Jermain Defoe. While the current selection is not as freewheeling, it feels more modern and multi-disciplined, as capable of "doing a job defensively" as it is of picking opponents apart.
Perhaps it was predictable, then, that this match more a game of chess than its predecessor. There was little give or take during a cautious first period and City, certainly stung by the manner of their defeat last week, were generally content to allow Tottenham possession and play on the counter.
The hosts' best opportunity came after 10 minutes when Sergio Aguero hooked a yard over the bar after a corner was nodded down. Beyond that, the occasional incursion from Sterling or Yaya Toure, playing in the advanced role he so favours, was the sum of City's attacking endeavours.
For all the territory they were afforded, Tottenham struggled to pick through a well-screened home defence and it said plenty that Christian Eriksen's 25-yarder, hit while running at a sideways angle to goal and batted away by Hart, was the closest they could muster.
By the 43rd minute, Pochettino could be seem leaping in exasperation after a passing move down the right broke down; Spurs were not playing badly -- and City's setup was in part a tribute to their threat -- but this was far from their slickest or most decisive performance.
Aguero could have changed the complexion of the match, and perhaps have avoided the controversy that ensued, shortly after half-time but he blasted over on the half-volley from in front of goal following a deflected Toure cross. By the Argentine's standards it was a bad miss, and within minutes his team would be behind.
Toure rattled the bar with a 25-yard free kick five minutes after Kane's goal and equalised through Iheanacho but Tottenham have shown they are more than capable of winning in a variety of ways.
As the game opened up towards the end, Spurs showed the killer instinct they have displayed all season, one which City, still to win against a top-six side, have missed when it matters.
3. Kompany returns, but City crumble
To say City could not bring Vincent Kompany back quickly enough would be an understatement. The captain had not played for a month and a half after aggravating his calf injury and, if it felt like a gamble to reintroduce him on Sunday, then it was probably one worth taking.
The important thing was to get back into the title race -- longer-term considerations could wait -- and so the Belgian slotted in alongside Nicolas Otamendi. Helped by City's decision to hold a deeper line than usual, Kompany hooked a ball away from Kane with his first action and twice made important interventions to stop Eriksen through passes reaching their target.
Meanwhile, the selection of Fernando in front of them certainly gave the home side a more solid, circumspect appearance than in recent weeks. His contribution on the ball is minimal but he broke up enough Tottenham attacks to be effective. The midfielder was sacrificed for Iheanacho and the gamble had appeared to pay off when the striker scored.
But when Lamela cut through an exposed City midfield -- Toure was caught far ahead of the ball -- it was a reminder of old flaws and nobody could prevent the subsequent through ball between the two centre backs. Kompany had done all he could here and City paid a heavy price when he was finally exposed.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.