Harry Kane sees title-chasing Tottenham past hapless Aston Villa
BIRMINGHAM, England -- Three points from Tottenham's 2-0 win at Aston Villa in the Premier League.
1. Tottenham close in on Leicester
This was vindication for Mauricio Pochettino. After four days of criticism for fielding a weakened team against Borussia Dortmund, here was a result and a performance that eased the pressure on his young Tottenham side.
There were nervous moments and there was a brief sense that this might be one of those days. But in the end, Spurs swept Aston Villa aside and moved to within two points of Premier League leaders Leicester.
After the fall of Spurs' fringe players in Germany, the same first team that performed so well against Arsenal last week took Villa apart with admirable composure. Two goals from Harry Kane, one either side of half-time, removed the stress and eased the doubts. A Europa League would be nice, but a league title is clearly the top priority now.
The first half was an unbearably tense affair for Tottenham's supporters. No team should travel to Villa Park with doubts, but Spurs had been three games without a win and had endured a chastening experience in Dortmund on Thursday.
Since their victory over Manchester City on Valentine's Day, Pochettino's men had won just two of their seven games. Spurs' innate "Spursyness" had seemed a thing of the past, but if ever there was a day for it to make a comeback, it was today.
Villa had the temerity to demonstrate sporadic competence, breaking down the left through Aly Cissokho in the first minute and earning an early corner. Spurs, by contrast, saw their initial forays break up with misplaced passes.
Kane spurned a chance to open the scoring in the fourth minute, put through by Erik Lamela only to loft the ball onto the bar. But if that effort didn't exactly jolt Villa into life, it didn't shatter their confidence either. For all that Tottenham pushed, their hosts retained an irritating ability to cause problems on the counter attack. It was most out of character, given their season to date.
Midway through the first half, Tottenham turned up the pressure as Kane opened his own personal shooting gallery. It was not an immediate success. First Guzan denied him with his legs after a neat cutback from Danny Rose. Two minutes later, it was Guzan's chest, Kane opting to shoot when he might have done better to pass.
Moments after that, Spurs' top scorer tried his luck from range, only to send the ball fizzing wide. The clearest portent of doom came on the half hour when Lamela's shot was tipped onto the post by Guzan and then cleared off the line by Alan Hutton.
Was this going to be one of those days when nothing goes right for the visitors? No. Just before half-time, Kane struck. A swift free kick from Dele Alli sent the English striker scampering through and this time he made no mistake.
After the break, and the briefest of fightbacks, Kane did it again. Once again, Alli was the provider. Once again, Guzan could do nothing to keep the ball out. After that, Spurs were on cruise control. Only an implausible late effort from Rudy Gestede, which hit the woodwork, threatened the sanctity of Lloris' goal. Spurs are back in their groove now.
2. Kane makes the difference again
Kane is not the swiftest nor the most technically accomplished striker in the Premier League, but there are solid reasons for his success. His work rate is well documented, his positional intelligence is obvious, but it's his resolve that marks him out as something special.
He shrugs off misses and mistakes without ever letting them affect him. His blank start to the season didn't dent his belief. His disappointing recent display at West Ham didn't stop him producing a goal of the season contender against Arsenal. His first half misses on Sunday didn't stop him from trying again and again and again until he scored.
Kane's composure will serve Spurs well in the final stretch. If he can continue to treat triumph and disaster as impostors just the same, you never know how this campaign will pan out. It's been 55 years since Tottenham won the title. They won't have a better chance than this to end that barren run.
3. Villa are a club without hope
There is one thought that strikes you when you approach Villa Park now: How on earth has it come to this? How has one of England's biggest teams spiralled to the bottom of the table with so little fight? The worry is that not only are Villa going down, but they may not be coming back. The mood in the Midlands is bleak.
Ten minutes before kickoff, the PA man did his best to rouse the thin crowd by shouting out the line-up. Every name was met with silence, save for Joleon Lescott, who received a smattering of jeers and boos.
And yet, Villa were better than they had been against Manchester City, though is hardly high praise. They earned their first corner inside 120 seconds and came close to scoring five minutes before half-time when Gestede's effort was blocked by Hugo Lloris. At times, there were clear, if sporadic, signs of competence. But it wasn't enough.
With defeat assured there was, however, defiance. Just before the hour, the Holte End rose in unison and broke into supportive song. As the pledges of loyalty turned to calls for the owner's departure, a banner went up in the home end that read, 'Lerner Out'.
A steward, who moved in and tried to take it away, was roundly jeered for his efforts. He stood in front of the protesters, occasionally reaching up to try to snatch it, only for the banner to be pulled away. Then, defeated and with shoulders slumped, he trudged away before returning with reinforcements. This time it was snatched away.
A second banner appeared and was duly confiscated. When a third popped up in the area nearest to the Tottenham support, there was solidarity from the travelling fans. The stewards were jeered and pilloried from both sides. Once again, it must be said, Aston Villa are one of England's biggest clubs. And they are an absolute mess.
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.